I love the end of February because it contains several of my favourite things:  the end of bushfire season; the beginning of glorious Autumn in Melbourne; and Orientation Week for University Colleges.  Orientation Week is designed to welcome new first year university students into our residential communities.  While it can be a very anxiety-producing change for young people—leaving their homes and parents to move to a residential college full of young people that they haven’t yet met—it is also exciting and full of new possibilities. 

Healthy residential communities can transform a person.  Social researcher, Hugh Mackay, in his recent book, The Art of Belonging, argues that to experience community, we need security—both physical (‘I’m safe here’) and emotional (‘I belong here’).  Mackay’s premise is that once we have security, we can accept responsibility for the wellbeing of others:

The place we live matters…it’s more about the people than the place; more about belonging than acquiring; more about engaging than cocooning.  That’s why, when we experience the little miracle of connection with a community, we hear ourselves say, ‘I feel at home here’ (p 7). 

At St Hilda’s College, we work hard at ensuring that every new student moving into our community feels secure.  Our motto is Communitas, ‘the spirit of community.’ From the warm welcome of Orientation Week leaders, senior students who help settle in our new students, to the week’s activities designed to help students feel prepared to start university and navigate Melbourne, we want our students to finish the week saying, ‘I feel at home here.’  

St Hilda’s will welcome new students on Saturday with hope that 2021 will be a more ‘normal’ year than the one before.  Last year, our 2020 new students rated Orientation Week a 92% out of 100.  Some students named it as the ‘best week of my life so far.’  A college community is indeed a very special group.  From every state and territory of Australia and New Zealand (sadly, our usual cohort of international students can’t join us because of closed borders), our students are a good representation of the University itself.  Rural, Urban, Suburban, diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, our students will live in community with others that are from somewhere else studying something different than they are.  While differences abound, everyone is here for the same reason:  to flourish at university.  

In my experience, therein lies the magic.  That ‘same reason’ unites us.  The ‘student experience’ is lived here.  Residential tutors, mentors, alumni and friends of the College, and staff invest deeply in developing each and every individual as a part of this diverse community.  Each person finds their place in the community and makes it the special network that it is and becomes a better person for doing so.  Again, Mackay is helpful here.  He argues that there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between community and morality…If we only connect with people we like or who share our interests (how will we learn) tolerance, patience, compassion, kindness and respect?  The way we respond to people who are unlike us is the best test of our moral integrity’ (p 33).  

In the next three blog posts, I will outline some of the ways that students develop in community.  I look forward to you joining me.