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One uni holiday back in second year, I was randomly placed next to a girl on a flight from Auckland to Wellington. I recognised her from my Religious Studies class and started to chat. This girl was bubbly, open, and full of personality, and an active contributor in every class I went to. We struck up a conversation, and have been close friends ever since. Recently we were reminiscing, and she thanked me for starting a conversation with her on the plane.
A pretty normal story of friendship, but one thing shocked me. This bubbly, wonderful person said that I was the first and only friend she had made at university. It got me thinking how I knew of other students who felt they had made very few genuine connections with other people in their time at Victoria. The University’s annual survey shows that around half of students don’t feel connected to the University. That’s a really shocking number, and makes me pretty sad.
We are part of the University community – we are the University – and in this university are thousands of individual people. There’s been a lot of discussion about how connection is crucial for good mental health. Something that contributes to poor mental wellbeing is not feeling connected to the people around us or feeling part of a community. It can be pretty easy, in a place this big, to feel isolated and alone in a crowd.
Last week, the University Council passed a new strategic plan 2015–2019, with some great things in it for students. To significantly improve the student experience so that it is the best in the country was identified as one of the top three priorities in the plan, with a specific priority around connecting students to each other and the University. I’m really proud to have been a part of this change.
We all agree that there needs to be more counsellors. We all agree that directing resources to the most at-risk students is important too. These things are tangible. But how does a university actually go about increasing the opportunities for people to make meaningful friendships with each other?
I know that there will be a lot of thinking about what the University can do to increase connection. What if schools held regular staff–student drinks – for undergraduate as well as postgraduate students? Having a common room makes a difference too. Campus Coaches is pretty cool, and tutorials can help, but some tutors don’t even try an awkward icebreaker. While we’re pondering about how to do good things right across the University, look to yourself. What can you do, today, to connect with other students and staff? What about the University? If we want to improve the mental health of individuals, then fostering belonging is a part of the solution.