During term time there are few working environments that can compete with a university for atmosphere and variety. And you’d be hard pressed to find a campus anywhere in the country that isn’t a hive of activity, especially in that first term from September to December.
At my own institution, the University of Hertfordshire, there can potentially be about 28,000 staff and students on site at any one time. All this changes, however, at Christmas, when universities shut up shop, and students and staff together breathe a collective sigh of a relief as the frenetic first term comes to an end. Then a welcome hush settles over an institution.
But this isn’t the case for everyone, and it isn’t always such “a welcome hush”.
A university campus can suddenly turn into a lonely place when everyone else has gone home, leaving just a few remaining students. Like many institutions across the country, every year at Hertfordshire we have some students that stay on campus or in private accommodation who can’t go home for the holidays. This year, we expect that number to be approximately 800 students.
This can be for a variety of reasons, from international students being unable to travel, students with seasonal jobs who have to work, those that would simply rather not go home, and those that may not have homes to go to at all.
As dean of students, it is my job to make sure that these students aren’t forgotten and get the support they need. Or at least have the option of somewhere to be on Christmas Day.
So what do we offer to those that stay behind? The Christmas Day classics, of course! A Christmas buffet, a selection board and card games, a film or two, carol singing and a leisurely post-buffet walk to burn off the Christmas calories and help induce that traditional afternoon snooze. But if students just want some company and a hot drink, we also offer that, as well as providing visits for those students who don’t want to come to the campus, but who may want some company in their own accommodation.
Unlike that awkward but customary game of charades with grandma (before the Queen’s speech), we’re not here to force the festive spirit on anyone, but to simply celebrate and support. That is what is important to remember about this time of year. A university isn’t just like a community, it is a community, and it is important to maintain that feeling and spirit even when vast swathes of that community are not there.
Of course I won’t be doing all this alone. The Students’ Union volunteers, resident assistants from our halls, and members of our Active Students Team will all be on hand to help us create that festive spirit. Plus, an army of general staff volunteers from across the university’s different departments and faculties have also answered the Christmas call (also known as an “all-staff email”).
I have been genuinely touched (but not surprised) by the number of people offering to give up their time on Christmas Day. So, it also goes to show that while we’re doing this for the students, it can also provide an outlet for staff who fancy an alternative to the Queen’s speech and an argument over the TV remote.
Happy Christmas from all of us on the University of Hertfordshire campus on Christmas Day.
Geri Ward is dean of students at the University of Hertfordshire.