In July 2020, I sat in my spare room, with a newly delivered laptop, and looked at myself grinning back from a screen – for what seemed like the thousandth hour that year.
New in post, to a newly created role of Director of Student Support and Engagement at Leeds Trinity University, I had all the first day nerves and worries that everyone experiences on new job day.
But there was something more. I suddenly felt how I knew many, if not all, of “my” students would feel in just a few months’ time, when they moved to the “new normal” – a phrase I have come to hate – there is nothing normal about any of this!
Students would sit in front of screens, worry about how they would truly connect, and not know how long this would last for. I resolved to bottle that feeling, to make sure that it would be front and centre of our thinking for all things student support as we moved into a new academic year, navigating the challenges of a pandemic.
So as I look back now, with the “new normal” on the horizon, there are ten things I’m going to take forward.
For us, it’s about being personal and authentic.
Instead of a warning email about a Covid-19 rule, we sent a video message sharing how we know social distancing is hard. Instead of a virtual e-card, we sent a postcard and a packet of sweets noting how proud we are of all our students. And when things have been tough, we’ve said sorry and looked for solutions. It’s the personal touch that makes the difference.
Students have the answers, but we need to ask the right questions.
We have run a series of pulse surveys every three weeks, asking “what’s been happening, what’s good, what’s bad, how can we help?” This has given us the ability to fix things quickly and let students feel heard.
Work really closely with the students’ union – not on paper, but in real life.
If you want to get something to your students, work out a plan with the SU and deliver it together. That’s been key to #LTUnity, our “safe social” programme of activity, which we’ve delivered in partnership between the university, the SU and other groups in our community.
It doesn’t always need to be a quiz!
Through #LTUnity, we have tried online origami, cookalongs, fitness classes, games nights, streamed DJ sets and sent out pizzas – all free to the student body and available to them wherever they are. We have tried to vary the offer; even with small take up, we have been pleased that students have got something extra from us.
Where you can – move away from the screen.
Through our app, we’ve been in the pocket of most of our students throughout the pandemic and have offered appointments online. But we’ve also made sure our support staff are still safely on site, so that residents who call our campus home can have contact with professionals during lockdown. That small amount of face-to-face has been important.
Make it happen and tell your students.
The world students are studying in is not the world they applied for, so work really hard to make it great! We worked directly with our leadership and executive teams to respond quickly to changing circumstances and do the right thing. Whether that’s social activities, a rent credit for the third lockdown or an academic safety net, it’s important to keep students updated and involved.
Students have experienced a range of different impacts from lost jobs, to cancelled holidays and family challenges – so we need to make university support easy. As the third lockdown was announced, we began making phone calls to every resident, started a series of Instagram takeovers and spoke to students in their language, and extended our student support opening hours so if they had questions, we were there to answer them.
We have sent a whole batch of pandemic graduates out in the world in 2020 and in 2021 we look set to do the same. Think about how scary that must be and re-work placements, careers and the post-grad offer. Our classes of 2020 and 21 are to receive a full bespoke package with a series of ways to progress in their career and enhance their employability, after a year like no other.
Find and share opportunities for students.
We have been offering students in the city of Leeds the chance to be part of the Covid-19 volunteer vaccination squad. The current estimate in Leeds is that one in five vaccines will involve a student or former student of the three big city institutions, which is something we can all be proud of and great CV builder.
Plan for a big return.
While many institutions think that blended teaching and learning might be the way to go moving forward, we get the impression that the real and the actual might be very popular in the not too distant future, subject to government guidance. Our Intro week 2021 is going to be our biggest ever, and the invite list will include all those who didn’t get the freshers they had hoped for in 2020.
As for the future, all that can be said is that universities have been able to innovate more than we would have believed possible this time 12 months ago. For every challenge we have faced, we have found a solution.
When the time is right, we’ll ask our students and staff what we should keep from this year, and what should be consigned to the Covid pandemic Room 101. But as Ellis Peters said, “Nothing learned is ever quite wasted”. And my… the things we have learned.