Helping students on their path

University of Otago senior warden Jamie Gilbertson says it is a privilege helping young people...
University of Otago senior warden Jamie Gilbertson says it is a privilege helping young people transition into adulthood. Photo: Linda Robertson.
A lot has changed at the University of Otago’s residential colleges, but the man given the new role of senior warden says the essence that makes them special lives on.

After more than 15 years as warden of the university’s Arana College, Jamie Gilbertson took on the role of senior  warden this year.

While continuing his role at Arana, he now also shares his experience with all 15 colleges, 11 of which are university owned.

Both he and his boss, campus and collegiate life services director James Lindsay, stressed the importance of the colleges, which are home to 3500 mainly first-year students, to the overall success of the university.

Mr Gilbertson (59) said while the management systems and level of pastoral care had been stepped up in recent years, the colleges still shared an "essence" and traditions passed down the generations since the 19th century.

Colleges were still built around the idea of supporting young people in their transition to adult life.

"This is not a new concept," he said.

He also disputed the suggestion there had been too much homogenisation, saying it was important each college had its unique culture.

He had an answer right away when asked what he enjoyed most about being a warden.

"It’s the privilege of sharing the journey of young people making their way.

"When you are supporting young people on their journey, a variety of things can happen and it’s about getting them through."

When things did go wrong, for example there was a death at a college or someone had a "broken heart or broken arm", Mr Gilbertson was there to guide other wardens about the best way of bringing students through.

Mr Lindsay said Mr Gilbertson was chosen for the role because of his experience and the support he already offered to other heads of colleges as a valued, wise colleague and good community citizen.

The college leadership team was constantly trialling new ideas and developing new practices to meet challenges as they arose.

"The oldest college started almost 125 years ago and we are still steadily evolving our processes of care and support in our collegiate system because the students’ needs continue to change and evolve," Mr Lindsay said.

Students used to turn up with one suitcase but now had multiple pieces of luggage, electronic devices, home comforts and sports gear.

They were constantly linked to family and friends by social media and behaved differently from students even a decade ago.

Back then, residents asked for only four or five "special diets"; now the colleges had a list of well over 100 dietary requirements.

Students were also beginning to display more mental health issues, were in more need of help when developing resilience in the face of difficulties, and often still found the leap from high school-level study to university study very challenging, Mr Lindsay said.

College leaders recognised those issues and worked collaboratively to establish peer support and best practice in coping with, at times, complex situations.

It was recently decided colleges no longer needed support from advisory councils to help with things such as legal matters, finance, marketing and human resources.

The university had developed its internal management systems and they supported the colleges in place of the councils.

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