For every student to feel that a positive Higher Education (HE) experience is within reach, they have to feel seen and understood by their institution. This has become the mission of Dr Úna Redmond, Director of the Office of Student Life at Dublin University, who has been a long-standing champion of initiatives that show students the value of participating in all facets of university life.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Una about her initiatives in the student life sector, the importance of belonging and more.
I first came into a graduate role in the Students’ Union at Dublin University, which in the late 1980s was focused on helping students get part-time work. At this time, graduate roles in Ireland were very scarce. I came with a degree in social science and a Master's in business studies with a focus on HR. I immediately took to the university environment — I was very fortunate, because I had joined DCU before it was a university, so it was still growing as I was beginning my career, and I grew in parallel with the university.
Holistic learning and a well-rounded student experience are incredibly important. We always try to think not only about the academic, but also the cultural, social and spiritual. It’s about looking at the student as an entire person, not just someone to teach and turn them out on the other side with a degree.
The Uaneen module, which I developed, was at the time very unique. It gives academic credit for extracurricular activity and not just academic subjects, so it focuses on the professional and personal development that comes from engagement with extracurriculars. This can be anything from sports, social activities, volunteering, community engagement, or anything outside of the classroom.
It was a pioneering initiative at the time to reward students outside of the traditional assessment criteria, and it was a more enlightened way to focus on student development. It wasn't about students making a massive community impact, but about learning through personal growth and reflection, and I’m very proud of that initiative. I believe universities should also have a positive community impact, so that was another reason why I loved this initiative.
Getting students back on campus was monumental; we introduced students to coming back for classes earlier than for social activities, so it was a challenge to merge the two activities. Thankfully we had a new student centre on campus which meant a lot of social activity moved outside it. We did see a lot of high engagement levels continue in many of my student areas after Covid, which was great, but I know a lot of teaching staff found the return to lectures more difficult.
We are facing an accommodation crisis, so students aren't always in ideal living situations and therefore must commute long distances in some instances. This also impacts social activity in the evenings, so we've tried to focus on how we can make events more accessible and inclusive for commuter students, and make more spaces for students to spend time if they have a lot of time between classes and going home. It's essential to make different groups feel seen and heard in these circumstances. The students we want to focus on are the ones who would like to be involved and can't access what we have to offer.
It’s very important; how can you get involved if you don't feel you belong? We encourage all students to join some kind of campus group that binds them to the place over and above their academic programme. There is also the issue of feeling comfortable in a physical space and feeling like the campus is fit for you, so we are always looking for ways to make the lives of all students easier. Of course, belonging also comes into the academic too, even small things like structuring assignments so they aren't all at the same time make a huge difference, so we make sure to educate student reps really well so they can raise these issues effectively.
Make sure the student is at the centre of everything you do and every decision you make.
Dr Clare Bohan, the Director of Student Support and Development has been a great advocate for students. She is a wonderful colleague, and a great leader and I really admire her.
I believe once you can read everything else follows, including education, and education can open so many doors in terms of lifelong learning so I would say, although I can't remember what it was, that the most important book would be the first book I ever read.