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Community Connections

Achieving excellence in accommodation

Of the hundreds of students living and studying at the University of Canberra, very few get to meet Rachel Overton face-to-face – but it’s guaranteed that she’s influenced the lives of them all.

Rachel is the Associate Director of Student Accommodation; she oversees the contracts that underpin the day-to-day operations of the lodges. It’s her job to ensure accommodation providers are operationally compliant with their contractual requirements.

Rachel is also the link connecting student services, such as wellbeing support and financial assistance, with students who need them. She’s the ‘mum’ in your home away from home, who works behind the scenes to ensure every student feels safe, secure and supported during their residency at UC.

Rachel hasn’t always been working from the wings. Prior to moving to Australia four years ago, she was the Director of Student Services for the Lincoln College Group, based in the United Kingdom.

“I've worked in education for over 25 years. I originally trained as a career advisor. Then, I worked as an assessor-instructor for apprenticeships and from there, I did a lot of training in mental health. I worked my way up from frontline worker to a manager, then a director,” Rachel says.

“In the last 10 years I've done a lot of specialist training: in safeguarding, child protection, disability and health problems. I’ve also sat on a number of government boards to advocate for students with disabilities and health concerns.”

Young adulthood is an exciting – but also incredibly challenging – time. It’s a period marked with many changes as young people transition to independent lives and begin building a career path – it’s not a time that they should struggle through alone.

“Many of the young people that move into student accommodation, they've never done their own washing before. They've never had to do their own shopping, cooking and cleaning before. If they're moving into an apartment share with five students, that can be really challenging,” Rachel says.

“We've got international students who are moving away, not only from their parents, but to a different country entirely. People with medical conditions might be worried about living independently, when they’ve always had support from parents, guardians, schools, etc.

“There’s a lot to consider, but I think it's just about reassuring young people that we are here to support them.”

Safeguarding is the act of protecting young people from harm. A large part of this is early intervention, which involves looking out for signs and symptoms that a young person might be struggling, to ensure any difficulties can be addressed before an incident occurs.

“Early intervention is about looking for the smaller details. If we've got a student in accommodation that's been engaged and happy and bubbly and then, all of a sudden, they're not coming out of their room, they're not communicating – we need to find out what's happening in their life. Has something gone wrong?” Rachel says.

Student accommodation is much more than recruitment and occupancy numbers – the priority is providing pastoral care through a holistic model.

Rachel has united different teams across the University, from UniLodge to Medical and Counselling, Student Wellbeing and more, who hold weekly meetings to effectively and proactively address the needs of students.

“We have a great network between the teams here and we all have a shared a vision. When a student has a problem, we look at which is the best service to get them on the right track,” Rachel says.

Clearly no stranger to education and training, Rachel herself is also studying at UC, and is currently in her second year of studying a Bachelor of Laws. It's no small feat – working full time, being on call 24/7 and then studying as well – but Rachel is dedicated enough to take it on.

“It was something that I wanted to do when I was young, but never thought I would be capable of doing it,” Rachel says.

“A significant part of my job now is contract management. There's a lot of legal requirements that we have to check that we're in compliance with, the  government initiatives, Residential Tenancies Act, etc.”

Although the roles, locations and situations have changed over the years, supporting young people to achieve their best has always remained Rachel’s passion.

“It's great when you see them going out into the world, achieving and being successful – that's more rewarding than anything,” Rachel says.

“Back when I was working in the UK, one of my contacts didn’t know where he wanted to go in life and dropped out of school. I managed to persuade him to continue with his education, then supported him through his university applications. We spent a lot of time looking at the positives in his life and trying to focus on those.

“I caught up with him again years later. He’s now the head of the teaching department in the UK.”

This year, Rachel was recognised at the National Asia-Pacific Student Accommodation (APSA) Conference as the 2022 New Professional of the Year. She’s been invited to represent the University of Canberra on the APSA board, and to present at their upcoming international events.

Rachel’s also looking to the future of accommodation at UC and is collaborating on a raft of exciting new initiatives.

“From Semester One 2023, we're going to start introducing no alcohol floors, because we've identified that more young people are not so interested in the party scene, so they can opt to be placed on a no alcohol floor so they can be more comfortable and better focus on their studies,” Rachel says.

“We’ve also got to think about accommodation for families. Finances can be really tough when you go to university, especially if you've got a family, but the opportunity to live in cheaper accommodation would really take the pressure, off so the focus can be on their education. Hopefully in the next few years, we can get this off the ground!”

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