For the past ten years, UL students have been supported by the amazing staff of The First Seven Weeks Hub. This support has included everything, from asking for directions or learning new information at our educational workshops, we have been there in luminous orange with answers at the ready (or at least the willingness to find them!).
As this year’s coordinator, I saw this programme being incredibly helpful and supportive of students – any and all that stepped foot in The Hub. Different universities around the country have used similar initiatives, with similar outcomes, all with the aim of helping students settle into the next step of their education. But the First Seven Weeks at UL was the first student support programme of its kind in Ireland. In the University of Limerick, the First 7 Weeks programme works closely with the student support centres, Student Life and the Student Engagement and Success office, so instead of competing for students attention, we all work together to ensure the best experience possible for our students.
The First 7 Weeks initiative had eight members of staff this year, with our Hub open from 8:30am to 5:30pm, based in the centrally located Student courtyard. This allows for maximum integration into the students immediate environment, ensuring we are there when we are needed. Conveniently, the Hub is only a stone’s throw from many cafes, lunch areas and the on-campus shop. We offer services that students really need; this ranges from online competitions to win goodies or travel passes, educational workshops to help with university life, and social events to make sure that for the rest of their UL experience, students still have a strong support system in the shape of great friends.
I started in UL not knowing anyone, and being completely unprepared for college, I ended up taking a few years out and reassessing everything. I still came back to UL, and when I returned, the First 7 Weeks programme helped me blend in seamlessly into the college world. This meant re-learning how to study, familiarising myself with the library and the University’s support systems (whether that was educational, medical or mental/emotional supports) as well as giving me an amazingly strong friend group to rely on. Being able to pop into their common space and chat to people in the same situation really gave me the confidence to be myself. I made it a goal for myself that the next year, I wanted to help students the same way the programme had helped me, and so I became a member of staff!
There was no better way to realise how much we did for the student body, than from within the programme itself. I have since progressed to the position of Coordinator, allowing me to focus on what students really need and want, and tailor the programme exactly to those requirements. This also means making sure the freebies and workshops we give students are actually what they want, from notepads and reusable water bottles, to classes on ‘easy and wallet friendly healthy eating’, we make sure our students are covered for everything!
In the Hub itself, we offer a social space and mini kitchen for students who want to bring in their own lunches, need a cup of tea after a day of lectures or just to have some friendly faces they can chat with. This year for the first time, we also ran after-hours social events. These included group trips to the cinema, allowing for more friendships to form and also allowing us to keep up to date on new movies without having to go on our own! We had feedback from students saying that these were the most looked forward to events each week, and that it let them rest up after a tough week of study and other recreations. We even ended up having to make sign-up sheets to ensure we didn’t overbook!
We had high numbers of international students and postgraduate students come through our doors, many having said that while researching the university, that they had stumbled upon our staff-written blog. This blog has everything from the best Netflix shows to binge watch, all the way to the best study methods from our most diligent staff members. This blog tends to bob in and out of popular view, but it has always been there, letting the information be available for those who may not be able to make our workshops in person.
In the last few years, we have realised that workshops have smaller and smaller numbers, but to counteract this, we figured out our online presence could host the information. This meant our workshops and important tips were available to students at any time they needed support.
Honestly, this job has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I could have asked for while here at UL. To any students that are interested in the programme, or interested in helping the wider student populous, we offer our office staff positions to current UL students. We do this for a very important reason, so that enquiring students know that we are exactly like them, UL students and a sound bunch! No question is too silly for us.
Over the next few years, the programme will endeavour to improve and excel in what it does; making sure students settle in, find a second home here in UL, and let their ability shine through without the stresses of not having the right people to ask for help.
Running this programme has taught me so much about what it means to support students. How successful it can be is purely based on how much you listen to those around you. It has also taught me that a university has so much more to offer students than just their lectures, and all we have to do is listen.