Ulster University’s Head of Residential Services, Gareth Kennedy

In its first year participating in the GSL Index (formerly known as the National Student Housing Survey), Ulster University won the award for Best Move-In Experience and was nominated for Best Booking Experience, as well as having countless staff members nominated for the Student Accommodation Hero Awards.

Head of Residential Services Gareth Kennedy shares how Ulster have perfected the art of the move-in process, and tips for how you can achieve it.

First impressions are everything, and move-in day is a student’s first impression of what the next few years of their life will look like. But it’s more than just that – over a number of years, our senior management has noted the importance of student retention, and the initial touchpoint of moving in has been identified as vital in encouraging students on a positive university journey.

As a result, we’ve invested substantial resources over a period of time to ensure that students’ first impressions of the university are positive, and that students withdrawing from the university do so as result of an academic issue as opposed to issues of homesickness, failure to settle and building new relationships.

If you get off on the right foot, it will make both your life and their lives easier for the rest of the year – so here are some of the insights that have helped to make us award winners in the move-in process.

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1. Start developing a bond with students from the moment they get in touch

Ulster University has accommodation across 4 sites, 75 miles apart, with 60 staff involved in the welcome process. The staff are dedicated to ensuring that all residents and their families feel welcome, safe and reassured from the moment they interact with the service. This involves open days, telephone calls, emails, tours of accommodation and zoom calls in advance.

It’s about developing a bond and relationship between the resident and their family developing trust that we will support them and allow them to develop to their full potential. The welcome on arrival provided to the students and their families is genuine empathy from years of experience and that comes across to the students and to their families once they arrive on-campus.

We also develop the sense of excitement and integration amongst our new students by providing them in advance with the full range of arrival and welcome events that we have planned. This is distributed via email and social media.

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2. Multi-campus operation? Get your Wellbeing and SU teams to pitch in

Ulster’s greatest challenge is providing this thorough welcome experience on 4 campuses across Northern Ireland over the same weekend, welcoming up to 2,000 students. This can lead to stretched resources. However, there are other university staff who support this from Student Wellbeing and Students Union. Car parking can also be an obstacle particularly in the city centre locations however we have developed clear guidelines and procedures which students and parents follow respecting other arrivals coming after them.   

By making it a university-wide operation that’s thoroughly planned in advance, we are able to provide one to one guidance and support to each arrival. All information is posted in advance, and then on arrival residents are directed to the registration marquee. They are escorted to registration and then, on collection of their key, their vehicle is then directed to the block which they have been allocated. They are given thirty minutes to unload their vehicle, and Resident Assistants are there to assist them with moving their luggage to their rooms. Once they have delivered their belongings, their car is directed to an overflow car park so that the next arrivals can park adjacent to their block.

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3. Sort the admin in advance…

We ensure that students have nothing to worry about on arrival as most of the arrival tasks are completed in advance. We manage the move-in day by getting students to book their arrival slot via the accommodation software system, which helps prevents any delays in having them appropriately welcomed.

We preprogramme their university student ID as their key card, ensure they complete payment in advance or are signed up to a payment plan, and also get students to complete the mandatory online induction. We are constantly in communication with the students via email or phone in advance, making sure that all these housekeeping tasks are completed in advance.

4. …so you can welcome students properly when they arrive

With most of the boring administrative tasks completed in advance, students can concentrate on making friendships. We understand that this an exciting, but also stressful time for them and their parents, so we ensure staff concentrate on making them feel at home as soon as they arrive. The student receives a warm welcome on arrival at a dressed marquee which is provided for registration and is directed by a member of staff throughout the arrival process and journey.

We provide artisan coffee and baked treats for all students and parents on arrival to set the tone. Staff are dedicated to reassuring and welcoming the students and speak to them in a reassuring and empathetic manner.

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5. Reassure students (and their parents)

Our key messages are to be empathetic to the residents and the parents and to reassure both of them as best you can. It’s important to reassure the students that they will make lots of new friends, develop relationships and be part of a vibrant, integrated community. They will get to meet with a range of different residents via the icebreaker events and the social and sports activities that are organized.

Parents are also provided with coffee and treats on arrival after having travelled long distances. Staff are specially trained on how to reassure parents that their children would be well supported and looked after, and we ensure that each parent feels confident in how secure and safe the university accommodation is, and also how the university provides 24-hour support to residents looking after their every need.

6. Give students a welcome pack – but don’t forget the essentials!

We provide the students with their university registration ID, which is critical in getting them access across the campus. We also provide them with lanyards to carry their ID and key card in, and provide a range of sponsored items within their accommodation. The students receive information on wellbeing services, the Student Union, local facilities, and a range of discount vouchers and codes for local businesses. International students are provided with an essential Welcome Pack on arrival which includes toiletry items, some food, and also information on local facilities.

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7. Bring students together ASAP (…and bring food)

We create a sense of community by introducing the students to one another on arrival – it’s important to the move-in process that the student develops a warm relationship with their flatmates immediately. The Residence Assistants provide an icebreaker event within each individual apartment amongst the 5 or 6 residents. The residents of the cluster apartment start to develop a bond quickly, and then this is widened out further with a similarly-themed icebreaker event which include the full block of 36 residents.

Once this is complete, then each apartment gets together for a ‘Chippy Tea’ provided on the first evening of arrival. This ensures that the residents spend their first evening eating together as a group. Following that, we then provide live music within a marquee and encourage all of the students that have arrived to attend and interact to one another in an informal social setting, ensuring that they all remain on-campus and get to know one another. On the second evening of arrival, we normally bring students to the SU for a quiz and provide them with Dominos pizzas.   

And that’s how we do a move-in at Ulster! It’s been a hugely well-received process, as evidenced by our National Student Housing Awards success. We strive to keep learning, adapting and improving – here’s to more success in the future.

To learn more about Ulster’s ResLife programme, view Gareth’s webinar for the GSL Webinar Series here.