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A Word On... Induction Week - an epic blog for an epic week!

(8 October 2019)

Hannah promoting our Student Pledge

In her latest 'Word On...', our Community Liaison Officer Hannah Shepherd recounts her busy and emotional but ultimately enjoyable experience of Induction Week 2019.

Advanced warning: this will probably be my longest blog of the year. But it’s about Induction Week and, I feel, worthy of such attention because for so many people (including me) it has been a long and, at times, emotional week; enjoyable on many levels but also something we’re glad to have put behind us as a new academic year begins.

A warm welcome - despite the wet!

Sunday 29 September: ‘Move In Sunday’ and I was at Collingwood College. The weather was totally miserable but I was so impressed that our Freshers Reps (FREPs) were undeterred, and had laid on a wonderfully warm welcome for new arrivals and their families.

I’d gone along to meet my new mentees – like most Colleges, Collingwood runs a mentoring system which pairs new students with a ‘mentor’ as part of their support network as they settle into and move through University life. Sometimes I think this is as much reassurance for the parents as it is for the students.

For example, I spent quite some time on the morning talking to a mum and dad whose pride in their son and his achievements was utterly unmistakable. Yet it was also obvious this was a hard transition for them so it was nice to be there for them if only briefly. I mingled with my fellow mentors and got a bit excitable when I spotted GBBO’s Harry in the background judging the cakes – I may have taken a sneaky photo.

Disappointingly, I never got to meet any of my new mentees as they had not arrived by the time I had to leave. Though I am coming to learn mentoring is often more about being there and being available; offering the opportunities but learning not to worry if they are not taken up. Usually this means the students are having a great time, and isn’t this after all what we hope all students will have?

Walking the (Gemba) walk...

That brings me neatly to my next encounter with Collingwood College later on that evening. In a previous job I became more than a little in love with learning about the theory and practice of management and leadership; and one of the things that stayed with me from this is the ‘Gemba walk’. A Japanese term meaning ‘the real place’, this basically means getting out and about to where the real work happens, rather than expecting to improve something from a corner office or a desk separated from the people actually doing the work.

I’d realised from Induction Week safety planning meetings with the Durham City Safety Group that while I felt we could improve our engagement and contribution to the process, I didn’t fully understand how the events we were discussing (planned College Freshers events in City centre venues) were actually run at College level.

Cue a pleading email to the Chair of the Junior Common Room Presidents’ Committee, a great kindness from the Head FREP at Collingwood and here I was at 8.30 on a Sunday evening – when it was still raining – having black and red paint daubed on my face and preparing myself for a night out working with the FREP team.

'Repping the Collingwood colours'...

I won’t lie, I was a little nervous. It was loud, busy and full of very many people who all knew each other but none of whom I knew. But I would come to learn that those paint marks, because they marked me out as ‘repping the Collingwood colours’, became my sort of free pass to gaining people’s confidence to talk to me throughout the night. Which people did, and – honestly – I had a great time.

It all started with all the Freshers emerging from the College bar to exit the main doors of the College only to be greeted by a tunnel of FREPs all singing, cheering and generally gearing everyone up for a great night ahead. There followed a dance performance from the FREP team befitting of a scene from Glee and then the Freshers were doused with paint powder before being guided down from the turning circle and released into the night in small groups, each one accompanied by a FREP as they headed down to WiffWaff for a pre-booked event. It was all timed so that they would be waiting outside for as little time as possible before the club opened at 10pm.

At this point I lost contact with the FREP I was supposed to be shadowing but thanks to the remaining FREPs I was quickly buddied up to ‘bring up the rear’ of the last group of students. Taking a route down South Road, Church Street, New Elvet and then over Elvet Bridge we were passing through the Market Place and heading down to WiffWaff remarkably quickly. Of course there were the usual stragglers who needed to go get ID or money from a cashpoint but from what I saw the FREP team had managing these ‘breakouts’ down to a fine art. I observed in fact throughout the night, great care to keep an eye on their fellow students as one FREP put it of their own experience the year before: “I had a great time so I just want to make sure they do too”.

I saw plenty of my colleagues from other organisations out and about on the night and it was nice to actually stop and say hello outside of the usual meetings. I was pleased to hear that with all 16 Colleges having planned events, the City was coping reasonably well capacity wise and everyone seemed generally happy with how things were going. This was our first year with events in the City spanning four days instead of the usual hive of activity around Wednesday night. Who knows if the extra security arrangements that most venues put on because of this made a difference? Certainly from what I saw outside WiffWaff security was tight, with the manager visibly engaging with the FREP team and agencies like the Police throughout the night.

The rest of my night until about half midnight was spent talking to a few of the FREP team about why they did what they did, the challenges of it and various other topics like how they were finding Uni life and what areas they had chosen to live in and why. As the conversations went on I dished out some snacks I’d popped and got from North Road earlier in the evening and saw a lovely gesture from some student residents in the building opposite the archway outside WiffWaff, who brought down a tray of ham and cheese toasties for the FREPs. It’s nice to know that the humble toastie is still a mainstay of the Durham student diet 20 years on from my own experiences!

The weather was miserable and I took the opportunity to accompany a FREP back to College just after midnight with a couple of students who had decided to call it a night. It was great to chat with them about my job role and to hear their thoughts on alcohol – both had decided not to drink much that night and were happy to have just had an enjoyable start to their Induction Week. The FREP I spoke to while we were all walking back was a post-grad and we had a more detailed discussion about the challenges of finding the right balance in neighbourhoods where students live alongside non-student residents. It was a good conversation and one I know I need to do more of as I am learning the different nuances of student life between undergrads and postgrads and how their differing needs and experiences of the City need to be reflected in our ongoing community relations work.

Although I was exhausted and didn’t get to bed much before 1am (not at all an hour I wish to see more of after my son’s frequent night time wakings in the first year of his life!) this experience was possibly one of the most enjoyable of my time here so far. It brought home for me the message that if you really want to know what happens out on the floor, you have to get yourself out there too! And the cherry on the cake was getting an email from a resident on Church Street complimenting the work of the student teams in all the Hill Colleges for a very peaceful start to the year in spite of large numbers of Freshers making their way down into town throughout the later hours of the evening for various events.

Promoting good practice in licensing

Following on from various conversations on Sunday evening, licensed venues in the City centre were the flavour of the day again on Monday evening as I attended a licensing training event organised by the City of Durham Parish Council and offered for free to residents and representatives from other organisations. As there is an ongoing consultation at the moment for a Cumulative Impact Policy to be introduced in Durham City I felt it important to be engaged in the learning and discussion about what this might mean for our City, and indeed the students who enjoy the benefits of such a diverse offering in a relatively small City.

Not only that, but with College bars holding almost 50% of the total licensed capacity of Durham City Centre, this is an area I feel we should take an active interest in and, in my eyes, promote good practice in. My colleagues in Catering for example have undertaken a wide-ranging review of the operating arrangements for bars over the summer and are in the process now of implementing these. I found it hugely valuable to hear about the work they are doing and am pleased that they will be talking to some of our Task Force members over the coming months about this.

Preparing for Freshers' Fair

The event also provided me the opportunity to catch up very briefly with a local resident, Esther, who would be manning the stall next to mine at Freshers Fair later in the week. This is often how things get done and move forward around here because there is always so much happening at such pace; we have to take advantage of every moment to catch up with each other. As we briefly chatted through our schedules for the two-day event, I was reminded how lucky we are that in the face of many challenging experiences with their student neighbours, we have a solid cohort of local, non-student residents volunteering lots of their time to talk to Freshers. This year, after great success the previous year, they were again promoting their “Shhh…11pm-7am” campaign – which promotes a curfew on anti-social noise for the benefit of everyone living in area, regardless of tenure or work / study pattern. 

In between the training and actually seeing Esther however I had to get past a monumental amount of bag packing for my stall at Freshers Fair. Not being one to leave things to the last minute, I had intended to have this all done well in advance of the fair itself but, que sera sera, I did not manage to pull it off. Life, I am always learning, sometimes just works out the way it does through no real fault of your own The challenges this presents (like having 500 bags to pack whilst solo parenting a very sick toddler) can feel insurmountable; but you find a way. And find a way I did, I reached out, asked for help – anyone who knows me will have just fallen off their seat in shock – and accepted help. It was another humbling experience. And I may, just may, have had a little cry to myself at the end of Wednesday when I got a message to say all the bags were packed. You know who you are and I’ve said it a million times already but thank you!

Matriculation at Durham Cathedral

Anyway, Durham Cathedral. Seriously. Why does it have to be so beautiful in there! I will jump at an opportunity spend time there so Wednesday found me doing an early run to the Students’ Union to deliver supplies for Freshers Fair, then over to the Cathedral cloisters for volunteering at Matriculation. I got to spend most of the day doing what I love and marshalling the life out of thousands of students. I gained the affectionate (so I am told) nickname ‘Clipboard Warrior’ at International Arrivals Service the week before so I was happy to hand over chief responsibilities to a colleague and assumed a position at the exit to the tunnel which enters from the rear of the Cathedral into the cloisters.

I am not going to lie: it was freezing cold and I felt a bit like the fun police having to loudly request students to stop clogging up the tunnel exit as they all stopped to take photos. But truly, I didn’t really mind because I remember that feeling, I still get it now every time I am in the Cathedral. This is why you’ll often see me, if I am in there for work, with my head down; if I look up I just want to sit down and soak it all up. So, to those of you matriculating, I hope you loved this quirky ceremonial tradition of ours and that you have taken away some great memories from Wednesday.

Freshers Formal at Josephine Butler College

My bag packing miracle allowed me to relax a little on Wednesday evening which I enjoyed in the company of colleagues at Josephine Butler College at a Freshers Formal in the Howlands event hall. This was a gowned formal at which I found the atmosphere relaxed and enjoyed some interesting conversations with those nearest to me on the table. The Principal gave a decent speech at the closing about the overuse of the term ‘customer’ when talking about the student relationship with the University. It was interesting and I am not sure I agreed with him on every point – but that will be a discussion for another time! However overall he made it clear to me that the nature of the student-institution relationship has well and truly changed over the last 20 years. No matter what I do here, there is always something to take away from a conversation and this was no different.

I left early, heading home in the car while musing on his words, as I had a long day ahead of me at Freshers Fair on Thursday. It turned out this conversation would ‘bleed’ into my work on Thursday though where I had the task of promoting the Student Pledge which asks students to personally commit to a set of values which will underpin their life while studying at the University and living in the wider Durham community. I answered many questions about this from students who had heard it mentioned at Matriculation the day before when both the Students’ Union President and Vice-Chancellor mentioned it in their speeches as part of supporting its implementation.

Introducing our Student Pledge

Most just wanted to know what it was and was there a physical way of signing up to it. Which there isn’t as it’s not like a ‘contract’ in that sense, it’s more about how they live their life here and knowing what’s expected of them. I handed out around five hundred ‘Pledge Packs’ (a student designed initiative) and many more copies of the Student Pledge. I lost my voice shouting over the music – although to be fair given the state of my social life, I was enjoying said music! In the end though, as I found myself packing up to head off and do the nursery-run, I decided that, like most of my Induction Week it was a valuable experience and proved to me that the only way you can truly know how people will receive something is to put it out there and invite the feedback.

Catching up!

So, let’s wrap this up here because my inbox was so full by Friday that my day was pretty much spent sorting that out and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear the ins and outs of that! Consider this me putting myself out there and inviting your feedback. Our Student Pledge asks students to undertake to respect freedom of expression so please keep getting in touch with your experiences, thoughts and suggestions.

With best wishes,

Hannah