The ANZSSA Conference really helped expand my limited staff-based understanding of the student services world. Much more thought and consideration went into each aspect of implementing a new process than my student-self had realised. The conference hosted a variety of people who truly had the best student experience in mind. Not only were they willing to listen to students’ view-points, as shown by the student panel session and the workshop showcasing Massey University’s Co-Lab, but were willing to shift to student-preferred methods of contact, as discussed by Eric Stoller and Shanton Chang in their keynote presentations. These and other aspects highlighted the clear desire of staff and universities wanting to connect with their students.

Among the presentations over the course of the three days, one that really stood out to me in both elements of my position was the Over The Rainbow But Under The Radar workshop led by Deborah Lee of Massey University and Audrey Hutcheson from the University of Auckland. At the very beginning of the workshop, we were asked to measure how ‘rainbow friendly’ our home institutes were by the space between our palms, and I was surprised to see that only I had indicated more than a shoulder’s worth of space. I remember directing a confused frown towards a co-worker who I was sitting with when I observed his quite limited space.

Called on, I explained that I knew of safe student spaces available for queer students, movie and quiz social nights and personalised mentoring. Others from Victoria University had not known about some of these services which had made my ranking so much higher. In learning how Massey University and the University of Auckland earned their Rainbow Tick and seeing some of their materials, such as their booklet on explaining the gender-spectrum and their rainbow stickers, I came to realise that while Victoria University is doing well in regards to how they look after their rainbow community, they still have some work to do.

Although not a presentation, something else that captured my interest during the conference was that at the end of each of the keynote and house-keeping sessions we sang a short waiata, or Māori song. We also dined on the delicious Pacific Island themed food by chef Robert Oliver who cooked the dinner for the conference, which was accompanied by beautiful Island dancers and music. These two elements left a strong impression on me, so much so that I wanted to implement something like it into my own program, the International Buddy Programme. I connected with a personal contact in Te Pūtahi Atawhai at Victoria University to discuss my idea and we are now in the process of making the idea of hosting a Māori and Pasifika evening come to life.

Te Pūtahi Atawhai is a unit within Victoria University which specialises in assisting Māori and Pasifika students, giving them a space of their own to study and offering services such as a mentoring programme to aid the students in reaching their academic and personal goals. The International Buddy Programme is a programme in which new international students are paired with a current Victoria University student, who then offers social support while the new students are settling into their life in Wellington. By working with Te Pūtahi Atawhai, the students in the International Buddy Programme will be able to experience a deeper cultural experience and will learn more about the history of New Zealand and the neighbouring Pacific islands.

The ANZSSA Conference was truly inspiring for me, allowing me to widen my thinking about the possibilities and options available to connect with and involve students within the university. It was such a humbling experience and it has left me with the desire to explore ways to innovate, inspire and involve students to help create a safe and welcoming space for them to create and explore. As I go forward in the role of staff member only, I keep with me the idea of “with students, not for students”, reminding me that students have their own voice and as staff, part of my job is to help them be heard in their own words.

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Nikki Cleary