Membership Spotlight: Rebecca O’Hare
ASRA hears from Rebecca O'Hare, Head of Residence Life & University Relationships at Campus Living Villages UK about global issues affecting student residential accommodation and winning awards!
Can you tell us how you started out in student residential accommodation and the journey you took to get to your current role as Head of Residence Life & University Relationships at Campus Living Villages UK
I always describe my journey into the wonderful world of student accommodation as a ‘happy accident’. I graduated from University as an Art Teacher and given the limited positions available in Ireland at the time, I found myself working two jobs. A part-time Art Teacher and a part-time administrator in a small college that specialized in evening courses. The administrator role I loved as it exposed me to people who would combine part-time study with busy jobs and personal lives and I really admired the dedication many had in pursuing new qualifications. As a teacher I had an interest in education and supporting young students fulfil their artistic potential. I knew I wanted to remain in the sector of education and when a position arose at the University of Limerick in Ireland for the role of Village Manager I felt not only would it be exciting to work in a University but also a privilege to play a small part in so many students lives. I can still remember the excitement of my first day, pinching myself that I was working at a University!
Working as a Village Manager and gaining 5 years of student facing operational experience, was and remains to this day, one of the most formative experiences of my professional career. I witnessed students grow and develop over the years they lived in my Village and met students from all over the world just excited to be in Ireland. I dissolved arguments, dealt with health and safety issues and rescued numerous stray dogs from well-meaning students and found them new homes. Equally, I had the opportunity to liaise with numerous departments within the University and really experience what it was like to be part of a HE institution. Every day was different and with the support and guidance of an incredible team, I look back and think they were some of the best years of my career. Working there, and thanks to my then boss, I discovered the world of Residence Life and funnily enough Campus Living Villages too! When I learned about their Australian programme, I thought to myself “I’d love to work for them one day!”.
The University of Limerick was keen to inject some life into their Campus Life programme and so after some research, I took it under my wing and became a champion for it. The programme I created with other Village Managers really showed me how going the extra mile in providing a programme of well-thought activity for residents really does mean something to students and adds often unmeasurable value to living with you. When I attended University, I had a poor first year experience and nearly withdrew and unconsciously I often think I was meant to work in student accommodation and work to ensure others don’t have the same experience.
With that I was hooked and, after a move to Manchester in 2013, I became really focused on gaining a role in Residence Life. Via Twitter I connected with everyone and anyone who worked in the UK HE sector and made the most of any opportunity I had to speak to people about how they got their Res Life roles. I can remember being at the ASRA annual conference in 2014 looking through the delegate list and identifying people I wanted to meet. Every ASRA conference I attended has been a wonderful opportunity to network and the UK student accommodation community have always been welcoming and patient of any question I had. After some time spent working with the University of Manchester Students’ Union and with Sanctuary Students, my dream role with my dream organisation popped up in 2015. The rest, of course, is history!
You’ve been all over the world to see Res Life models in other countries, can you tell us some of the highlights?
The beauty and privilege of working for an international organisation is the opportunity to connect with colleagues on the other side of the world. I have been incredibly fortunate to travel to New Zealand, Australia, Portugal and Italy via work and experience first-hand how colleagues and those working for other organisations deliver their Residence Life or student experience programmes. Highlights include spending three weeks working in Te Puni Village in Wellington getting back to operational basics and a whistle stop tour of our Villages in Sydney. What has always struck me was the commitment of all teams to deliver an exceptional, diverse and consistent Residence Life programme and the commitment and time given to ensuring all student Resident Assistants were provided with the training they needed to be the best they can be.
What are the patterns and trends facing students overseas in student residential accommodation. Are there similarities ? What are the differences with the UK?
It will come as no surprise to many that the topic of student mental health and wellbeing has risen in importance in the same way it has in the UK. It’s a subject of importance to everyone in our business as well as for our University partners and in each region we’ve taken measures to ensure our teams are adequately trained to signpost residents to the services they may require. Anecdotally, I’ve seen how access to Residence Life programmes can enhance a student’s wellbeing and so it was refreshing to see research published by Wonkhe (Only the lonely – loneliness, student activities and mental wellbeing, March 2019) outline that involvement in activities related to improved wellbeing. Research like this and the increasing prevalence of poor student mental wellbeing issues has seen private accommodation providers both in the UK and further afield create their own versions of Residence Life or student experience programmes, a positive development which I very much welcome.
Additionally, the topic of transition (transition to, through and out of university) is gaining momentum in the UK. However, it’s been researched far more thoroughly in Australia and the US. In the UK, we’re only really starting to scratch the surface on this subject and it’s an area I’m particularly interested in, especially when you segment it further and look at the transition of marginalised groups of students and the recommendations for how we can and should support them. It’s an area, through my work, I’m particularly focused on improving.
You’ve recently won a CUBO Award! Congratulations! Tell us more!
Thank you! I was recognised by CUBO as the 2019 Residence Life 'professional of the year' at their annual Residence Life Conference. An excellent session for Residence Life professionals or those with an interest in the area, it’s really brilliant to see a conference dedicated to the work and interests of this emerging field in the UK. It was also wonderful to be present to see one of our students win an RA award for his work in our Village at the University of Salford, Peel Park Quarter. CUBO have been working hard to provide educational opportunities for many in the sector to learn how best to deliver Residence Life models but equally have recognized the role that private providers can and do play in enhancing the student experience. To be the first winner from a private provider is testament to CUBO understanding and recognising that work and one we at Campus Living Villages are proud to receive.
You’re also working towards an MA in Student Affairs. Can you tell us more about this, and how you feel this has added to your sphere of understanding of student issues?
After a few years of thinking about it, I finally bit the bullet and enrolled on the MA in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Anglia Ruskin University. While I’m half way through the course, it has been an absolute game changer for me. To provide some context, in the US, opting to work in Student Affairs is a career path many decide to undertake when choosing their degree programme. In the UK, the majority of us often “fall” into Student Affairs type positions. We accumulate skills and experience on the job and rarely encounter the educational theory associated with the profession. In the US, many of us, myself included would not gain a position in Residence Life without some Student Affairs educational credentials to back it up. The programme has provided me with the academic insight, knowledge and confidence to further support and argue for the important work many student affairs professionals undertake as well as providing my colleagues with academic research on numerous topics including student success, retention, attrition and intersectionality to name but a few.
It also has given me access to numerous people from many institutions who work in a variety of roles and aided me in understanding the challenges they face and class time with them is invaluable. Topics discussed in class often get heated as we’re all so passionate about the work we do and the service we provide to students. Importantly the research undertaken by students of the course is contributing to a vastly under-researched area in the UK. My own area of research will potentially focus on purpose built student accommodation of which there is little if not no social research available. If you’ve been thinking of undertaking this programme, I cannot recommend it enough.
Congratulations to Rebecca for winning the 2019 CUBO Award: Residence Life 'professional of the year' !
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