As a former accommodation manager, I viewed my buildings as more than just bricks and mortar. Instead, the individual flats and houses under my watch had their own personalities and quirks; unique attributes known only to me, members of my maintenance team and, of course, the eventual student occupier themselves. There was the house with a secret back garden, a flat with phenomenal views of the Manchester sunrise, and the block which was home to a family of swallows every spring. These attributes became embedded within the village; part of its personality and engrained into its personal story.
Over the course of months and years the bricks and mortar witnessed the experiences our students had at the start of their adult journey. They kept the frosty elements at bay and welcomed new friends. Witnessed rites of passage and mistakes made, then made again. If only walls could talk, the tales they would tell! The life at my villages, and no doubt yours too, ebbed and flowed, breathing in and breathing out as student life gushed in with vibrancy, expectation and hope, and trickled out again. The experiences and commotion of its residents left bruises on its physical stature, easily removed by a summer lick of paint, a replaced carpet and a deep clean, but the memories formed, retained within those solid walls would forever be reminisced about in the thoughts of those who once lived and worked there.
When we speak of student experience or indeed Resident Life, our immediate thoughts often turn to events big and small, a swarm of Resident Assistants and in recent years, building trendy common room spaces and designer hubs. We are eager to impress this generation, keen to stand out for the right reasons and present spaces which offer up community on a plate. However, how often do we stop and ask the question ‘What is a community?’ The communities I worked in and now work with, did not occur overnight. They didn’t suddenly appear because the building was modern, shiny and new, the communal spaces overhauled or the beds upgraded to a double.
They understood that a successful village community was one with a story of its own, and whether the story was decades or months old, it was believed to be an important factor that contributed positively to their resident’s experience
The communities were formed in the small hours of the night when non-residents were snuck in, over flat parties that got out of hand, tears that were shed, bacon butties consumed and copious bowls of pasta or green smoothies. They were formed when stress levels were high, anxiety was peaking, homesickness was rife and when the glimpse of summer freedom and a festival was just around the corner. But, most importantly, they were formed because those who worked there, who managed the daily attributes and quirks understood what constituted a community in their building, village or site and who appreciated and valued those idiosyncrasies and character-building traits of many students’ journeys.
They understood that a successful village community was one with a story of its own, and whether the story was decades or months old, it was believed to be an important factor that contributed positively to their resident’s experience; every member of the team an actor with an important role to play and the residents an active audience lapping it up. It was understood that the building of a supportive community involved being responsive, because for them, community was an action word, a verb.
Every student village has a story. When visiting a property, conducting an audit or undertaking a viewing, stop to reflect and ask yourself ‘what’s ours?’ and perhaps you may view your buildings a little differently and with new eyes. A modern or refurbished build will attract students and a robust Resident Life programme will support your residents’ needs further, assisting them in feeling at home, but your village story, when identified, will shape all of the above, making it stand out from the crowd and creating lifelong memories for the lucky residents.