The Interview Australia
Charles Darwin University
Director of Student Engagement

Sarah Fletcher

With universities increasingly welcoming students from a diverse range of backgrounds, studying in a variety of in-person and online formats, building an environment that is safe, inclusive, and cohesive is something all university leaders are working on.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Sarah Fletcher, Director of Student Engagement at Charles Darwin University (CDU), to discuss her team’s approach to balancing the needs of a wide variety of students whilst working to achieve a strong sense of inclusion and belonging on campus.

Sarah's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution, please.

I’m Sarah Fletcher, Director of Student Engagement at CDU, which is one of the few dual sector universities in Australia — looking after TAFE and Higher Ed sectors. We’re based in the Northern Territory (NT), with several campuses here as well as in Sydney and elsewhere across the country. We deliver our curriculum nationally, both on campus and online, to around 13,000 students in the Higher Ed sector and a further 8,000 in the TAFE sector. A lot of our students are part time, often returning to education as a mature student after some time away. We’re quite a young university, having been in operation for about 20 as CDU, and are the only university operating in the NT.

Luke: What’s your team’s role and remit?

The remit of the team I lead is to help students start well, stay well, live well, and finish well — involved throughout the student lifecycle journey. That covers things like student onboarding and orientation, specific support for international students, student life and connecting with their tribe, student advocacy, complaints handling, accommodation services, services such as counselling, wellbeing, careers and work integrated learning — a whole range of things. It’s a broad portfolio as we’re a small university, so you’ve got to wear many hats.

Luke: Student safety and harassment prevention is a big topic across the sector. What approach have you been taking in this area?

Ensuring that students are safe and feel that there’s an inclusive environment is paramount, particularly as students give a lot of themselves to their university experience. We frame this under our Safer Communities, which incorporates student safety, how we support students around behaviour management, and equipping staff to handle certain situations before it escalates. Respect, Now, Always — the prevention of sexual harm on campus — is a big focus right now for us, as it is across the sector, and is a pillar of this work that we do. Mental health and building an inclusive environment are the other key pillars of Safer Communities, under each of which sits a range of actions and activities.

Luke: What are some of the key takeaways for how to ensure these initiatives are impactful for students?

It’s about leveraging the expertise that’s already around you. An example would be: we’ve got some fabulous academics who teach in the mental health and wellbeing space, both in the vocational space and the Higher Ed space. These academics developed some mental health awareness training that we’ve now rolled out to all students, enabling us to leverage and disseminate that expertise.

Ensuring you’re able to listen to, and learn from, students — to capture the student voice — is also important. A fairly new initiative this year is a network called ‘Your Voice Student Network’, which is building a community among students that enables us to get feedback from students on a variety of topics, such as the mental health training I just mentioned. Bringing students into the design process helps you meet their needs much better.

Luke: Given students are busy and have many things vying for their attention, how do you engage them on these important topics?

It is a real challenge, particularly when you’re trying to engage lots of different groups — such as the fact that our on-campus students are international students that are here and studying full time, whereas our online students typically have other commitments and are with us on a part-time basis. Our main method is via our student portal, where we try to find the right levers to pull to engage with students, given that’s also where students go for a lot of their needed administrative activities. It’s also about working out what information students need and when, and then drip-feeding it through at the right time — rather than bombarding students with too much information during onboarding and orientation.

Luke: Given the huge amount of diversity in the student body, what are the key things to get right to embed a sense of inclusion and belonging?

I think it’s back to listening to students, to actively hear the student voice. This year we’ve had more international students than we’ve ever had. We have really strong cultural groups across the university, enabling students to connect both within and outside of the university setting, which really helps build that sense of belonging. Representation is also key — students seeing themselves in visible roles and hearing from students with similar backgrounds and experiences really helps build a sense of belonging and inclusion. It’s also about acknowledging that our students have different experiences and the intersectional nature of each of our identities, and ensuring this is recognised in the services and experiences we provide.

Luke: What is your best piece of advice to someone looking to work on similar challenges as yourself?

If we’re thinking about engagement and safety, it’s trying to find a way to embed it across the institution. Find the ways to make it everybody’s business — that people take it on as part of their responsibilities  — and use your networks to find your champions.

Luke: And lastly, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over your career?

Listen to your gut. You have all these tools around you for making decisions, but your gut is really important. The second thing I’d say is to surround yourself with awesome people, who complement your knowledge and skills. And the final thing I’d say, on a personal level — be brave, even when you don’t feel like it’s your area of expertise.

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Luke James
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