The Interview Australia
RMIT University
Associate Director for Student Life

Tim Burdeu

When it comes to education, placing an emphasis on empathy in leadership provides a powerful tool for navigating the complexities of managing diverse and dynamic student communities.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Tim Burdeu, the Associate Director of Student Life at RMIT University in Melbourne, to speak on this further. The discussion offers an in-depth exploration of various facets of student engagement, inclusion, and safety, providing a comprehensive understanding of the dynamic landscape at one of the largest universities globally.

Tim's Journey

Luke: Could we start with a brief intro to yourself and RMIT University?

I'm the Associate Director of Student Life at RMIT University in Melbourne. RMIT boasts a global presence with 90,000 students and campuses spread across Melbourne, Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and partnerships in Barcelona, Singapore, and beyond.

Luke: Impressive global footprint. With such diversity, how does RMIT approach establishing a sense of inclusion and belonging?

Our success in fostering inclusivity stems from key capabilities embedded in our strategy. RMIT's knowledge with action strategy, coupled with an education plan, outlines not only what we teach but also crucial capabilities. We aim to cultivate global, ethical citizenship, adaptability to digital technologies, and connectivity. These principles are seamlessly woven into our co-curricular programs, such as mentoring, ambassadors, and volunteer initiatives. Therefore, students are learning transferable, life-long skills that should set them up for success moving forward, which is a key distinguishable factor at RMIT.

Luke: Moving to a prevalent topic, student safety and harassment prevention. What key takeaways can other institutions learn from RMIT's efforts in this area?

We are part of the University's Australia Charter on Sexual Harm, and our Respect Strategic Plan is a four-year strategy addressing gender-based violence. This comprehensive plan emphasises primary prevention through cultivating a culture of care and respect. Our commitment is reflected in the 2021 student safety survey, revealing the need for significant work in this space. We consider it not just a responsibility but an opportunity for social change and impact. This also affects the ongoing impact our students have in society, which is of the utmost importance.

One of the key things I’ve learned is the role that male-identifying students play in this, and how important it is to bring them into the dialogue and the conversation.

Luke: Speaking of engaging men as allies, how have these initiatives to bring them into the conversation contributed to this?

Identifying men as allies is pivotal, and we've successfully initiated dialogues through platforms like men's barbershops. The 2021 student safety survey results were an eye-opener, highlighting the need for collective effort. Our focus on engaging men in the conversation has proven successful, offering a foundation for sustainable change.

Student voice here is something we’re really proud of, and we are always looking for new ways to engage and involve students in the co-creation process, coming up with initiatives that really create lasting change. It’s not about tokenistically inviting students into a meeting, it’s about having them create things alongside us so that they feel their input is really valued.

Luke: Engaging students in conversations about sensitive topics can be challenging. How does RMIT effectively cut through the noise and involve all students?

It's challenging, especially with a large and diverse student base, but it’s about creating shared value across the board. It’s not just about being pleasant to each other, we really want to focus on interdependencies — where helping one another helps us and our careers too. 

Our strategy involves targeting leaders within strong student communities. By investing in student development, we empower leaders of clubs, mentor programs, and volunteer initiatives. This "train the trainer" approach ensures scalability and effectiveness in engaging the broader student population.

Luke: Engaging students in leadership roles seems key. How does RMIT navigate the challenge of different departments operating in silos?

Creating shared value is crucial. We identify interdependencies within the university, particularly with academic colleges. Collaborating on shared goals ensures alignment and mutual benefit. Using data validation, like our orientation framework, has been a successful model, proving the impact of initiatives and fostering collaboration.

Luke: Shifting to the impact of your initiatives, what metrics have you found most impactful in linking student engagement to success outcomes?

Currently, our primary focus is on retention. We assess whether a student remains enrolled after twelve months, as a key indicator of success. While we are evolving, we aim to delve deeper into longitudinal outcomes, exploring correlations between engagement and future career success. At the moment, the focus is certainly on immediate retention.

Luke: Finally, reflecting on your career, what's the best piece of advice you've received and why?

The best advice I've received is to lead with empathy. A human-centred approach, focused on understanding and caring, has consistently resulted in high-performing teams. It's not about avoiding accountability but creating an authentic connection that has been particularly crucial during challenges, such as the COVID pandemic.

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