The University of Newcastle, Australia

An interview with Academic Senate member Helena Qian

Monday, 10 September 2018

Bachelor of Medicine and Diploma in Languages student Helena Qian is an elected member of the Academic Senate. Deputy Vice-Chancellor International and Advancement, Winnie Eley, recently asked Helena to provide some insight into her experience and aspirations as an Academic Senate member. Helena also had the chance to consider what big decision she would make 'if she were Vice-Chancellor for the day'.

Helena Qian

Please could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your program of study at UON

With a penchant for keeping busy, I’m a Bachelor of Medicine and Diploma in Languages student with a vast array of interests centred around equitable access to healthcare, social entrepreneurship and increased engagement with internet governance. I’m particularly passionate about aiding underserved populations and youth empowerment having been involved with numerous youth-led organisations in a leadership and volunteer capacity (currently serving as Country Ambassador for Youth Opportunities, National Coordinator for AMSA Global Health and Undergraduate Representative on the UoN Academic Senate).  Within the realm of internet governance, I was selected as a 2017 ISOC Youth@IGF Fellow, am a policy advisor for Electronic Frontiers Australia and am on the steering committee for AICF (Australian Internet Community Forum).  In recent years, I have gravitated towards women’s and children’s health and also serve as Sponsorship Director for PVOGS ANZ (Pre-vocational Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society). In my spare time, I enjoy travelling and bingeing Modern Family.

What motivated you to be a student member on the Academic Senate?

As UNMS Academic Convenor, I appreciated the Academic Senate’s role in maintaining academic integrity but also observed gaps in quality teaching and issues with providing an adequate feedback/support system for academic enquiries/appeal.  Moreover, I observed an absence of sustained staff-student communication resulting in a subsequent disconnect between student concerns and staff feedback.

Having been involved in more than 15 committees alongside full-time study and part-time work, I’ve developed excellent time-management and governance skills essential to effectively working with associated Council committees to voice student concerns and bring about improvements to staff-student communication, increased prioritisation of underrepresented student cohorts (international students, online students) etc.) and student engagement with framing academic standards and initiatives.

What would you aim to achieve during your term on the Academic Senate?

As mentioned above, my primary goals for this year are to: - Improve staff-student communication through creation of an easily accessible channel for timely correspondence and accountability - Increased prioritisation of underrepresented student cohorts (international students, online students etc.) - Increased student engagement and understanding of how Academic Senate operates and how students can become involved. This would also involve increasing student input regarding proposals and initiatives that directly affect the student cohort Since my term has begun, I have also endeavoured to achieve the following: - Creation of a generic email address for student representatives that can be used each year - Increased institutional memory and documentation of meetings and initiatives - An inaugural handover process for student representatives to further upskill students and assist with their integration into the role - O Week representation and engagement with new students - Formulating a strategy to disseminate updates from Academic Senate as a means of sharing staff and student success - Foster a sense of pride amongst UoN students through sharing both staff and student achievements and success stories

Do you have a message and a call to action for staff at UON? If so, what is it?

Please endeavour to share your student-related proposals/initiatives and achievements with student representatives to disseminate to the broader student cohort.

From being on Academic Senate this year, I’ve come to appreciate the countless new initiatives being worked on and the tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes dedication staff put into ensuring students have an optimal learning experience.  However, this has been poorly communicated to students with students often expressing dissatisfaction when asked to provide input on academic matters.  This disparity is an unfortunate mishap but can be easily corrected through gradual improvements in communication and increased receptiveness to student feedback. In addition, involving student representatives in the early stages of planning and discussion prevents potential conflicts and enhances transparency. Moreover, little nuances such as reaching out to student representatives to introduce yourself or positive reinforcements of student behaviour/initiatives can significantly increase approachability and encourage more sustained, honest and effective communication.

If you were the Vice Chancellor for one day, what is the one big decision you would make for the student community?

I deliberated over this hypothetical for hours.  If there were one big decision the Vice Chancellor could implement that’d drastically benefit the student community, students would have long started campaigning for this to occur.  Instead, there are a multitude of ongoing issues students care about, hence, there are a multitude of decisions I would want to make to cumulatively benefit the largest scope of students in a sustainable manner.  The first decision I would make is to divert my salary for that day into an Initiatives Fund for students.

An almost ubiquitous issue shared by students globally is low funds.  From personal experience, there have been various periods where I’ve had to budget meticulously to the last cent.  Similarly, having served on numerous organising committees and representative boards, a limiting factor to idea eventuation is budget.  Students at UON are lucky to be continuously inspired by incredible peers, picturesque scenery and inspiring staff.  However, financial constraints often deter students from being able to implement their ideas.  Hence, an Initiatives Fund for students with ideas to improve the wellbeing or student experience at any UON campus would not only encourage students to effect positive change, but also validate student voices in shaping the ‘new’ UON.

Additionally, student burnout is a concern every year, however, University Council has been working towards addressing mental health in a proactive manner.  In saying so, staff burnout should also be considered as our staff are the cornerstone of establishing quality teaching and a supportive learning environment.  Hence, staff burnout negatively affects student learning.  In addition, in some courses, staff-student communication is poor with limited contact hours resulting in a disconnect between student needs and staff provisions. Hence, I would love to mandate Course Coordinators and Faculties to discuss feasibility of a mid-semester ‘Halfway Party’ to celebrate staff and students for making it halfway through the course and also facilitate rapport building.  This would also improve wellbeing by encouraging celebration of achievements, giving staff and students a break and if the budget allows, free food to lessen the stress of figuring out ‘what to cook’ and ‘how much it will cost’.  In particular, this would allow students and staff to discuss how the course is running & potential issues and/or positives in an informal manner that is bound to have a higher engagement rate than the countless surveys reaching our mailbox.

Finally, albeit not a huge decision, I would personally link student representatives from each course with the relevant course coordinator or faculty member via email to facilitate introductions and increased discussion between staff and students.  A misconception is that staff-student communication must always have a purpose, usually to convey dissatisfaction or confusion. However, positive reinforcement, a message of thanks or even a gentle reminder of contact details and approachability are little nuances which can go a long way towards improving both amount and level of effective staff-student communication.

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