In my last blog, I explored some aspects of living in a community, leaning heavily on Hugh Mackay’s book, The Art of Belonging. I agree with Mackay’s assertion that in order to experience community we need security—both physical (‘I’m safe here’) and emotional (‘I belong here’). Today, I will explore more fully why feeling safe is essential to belonging to a community.
In a residential college, our welcome to new students happens each academic year in the week before University begins. Orientation Week, ‘O Week,’ and Welcome Week are just some of the names colleges use around the country to denote this very special week. We put much time and effort into the week so that new students are quickly incorporated into the community, feel a deep sense of welcome and belonging, and feel prepared to transition into university-level education.
Feeling safe is a basic need for all people. At St Hilda’s, our first two days of O Week are completely dry—no alcohol—and are designed to ensure that every new student can settle in without the ill effects that alcohol can often bring where insecurity is rife. Our O Week leaders, all senior students who have lived at the College for at least a year, have received at least two weeks of training that ensures they understand their role in making sure that all new students experience warmth, care and community. There are no coercive events, no hazing of any kind, and no yelling. Students are placed in family groups with two leaders, who nurture them and help facilitate relationships. Our expressed goal of O Week is two- fold: to create a sense of safety and to create a sense of belonging. If we have run a successful week, students are settled into their new home and ready for the challenges of university.
We do have a few tricks up our proverbial sleeve. Throughout the week, our leaders practice inclusivity. One of our ‘rules’ is that no one can start their own table in the dining hall if there is room at another one. This ensures that no one is sitting alone, or even feels awkward sitting down with others they don’t know, as the expectation is that you will take your place at a table that is not yet full. This ‘rule’ is one of our new students’ favourites, as it minimises the social anxiety of walking into the dining hall with no one to sit with. This rule continues throughout the year. Further, our leaders are a very diverse range of our students—male, female, non-binary; science, arts and design; domestic and international; outgoing and shy. New students who see someone ‘like them’ represented in the leadership team feel instantly that the college is a welcoming place for them. Finally, we encourage new students to do without their phones throughout the carefully designed days of O Week so that students give conversations and trying new things their complete attention. It is very hard to embrace a new place with only one arm if the other arm is still holding onto home.
At the end of our Orientation Week, we ask all first years to rate the week out of 100 against the criteria of feeling safe and feeling a sense of belonging. We also ask for comments of each event to ensure that we continually improve the week for next year’s group. This year’s rating is just above 93/100. As young people are pretty tough customers, we are pretty proud of that.