Life on Mars


With the dust of September finally settling, Gary Dunne reflects on the systemic difficulties faced every year by new students at UCD

They often mimic the appearance of a limpy gazelle on the Serengeti, with a familiar look of isolated confusion. This is the typical new student to UCD: lost, helpless and desperate for somebody to point them in the right direction. Every year UCD welcomes thousands of new students, and every year these new students face the same problems as those gone before them. Students who don’t know how or where to print their essays; students who don’t know what departments deal with what problem; questions starting with the familiar words, “Where do I go…?”

Orientation 2Lecturers often assume that all students have the adequate required knowledge to maximise their studies. A lack of information provision, information given too late, a lack of knowledge about facilities – all of these greatly affect students new to UCD. These problems might not seem like much, but they regardless cause needless anxiety to students. These same problems greet new students every year; but does it have to always be that way?

A walk through campus in the opening weeks of term highlights lost faces everywhere. It is not just 18-year-old freshers who are bewildered at the size and complexity of the campus either – often the most lost are the mature students finding the modern UCD very different to its incarnation when they might originally have attended, or vastly different to another college they did an undergraduate degree in.

The things that affect students most in their early academic lives seem to be the ones most overlooked by authorities. Witness the panic when a class has to hand in their first assignment, when mass hysteria sets in as students try to navigate UCD’s bewildering printing sysem. These students are in desperate need of basic ‘how to’ knowledge, sadly often overlooked in favour of things like campus tours and getting €2 out of students to join a society whose events they will likely never attend.

This kind of knowledge is implicitly known by various staff and students around UCD. Staff on the Student Desk, in the libraries or services are asked the widest range of questions possible, but the channels currently used by the University to disperse basic information do not seem to reach everybody. Tacit knowledge does not seem to be chronicled or acted on; instead, it exists merely in the collective mindset of the campus, without being recorded to help future freshers. No doubt UCD carry out extensive research on the dispersion and sharing of knowledge and so on – after all, such is the basic function of a university – but it is useless if the college cannot share information about its own operations or cultures.

The orientation guide service running each Orientation Week is a great success, but the needs of new students do not disappear once they are registered and have a student card. Why can’t a similar service could be run in the early weeks of term? September could become an ‘orientation month’, with more workshops on all the facilities in UCD. The current orientation week is good, but in a college the size of UCD, nobody can realistically learn to grasp the array of varying services and offices in a single week. A longer-term introductory period to the college is required, especially when the effects of modularisation mean that many modules, particularly for postgraduate courses, often jump immediately into coursework, requiring students to hit the ground running and affording them no time to grow into their new surroundings.

Individual Schools within the university can also play a significant part in introducing students to the facilities of UCD. It is they who have daily access to the students, while expecting them to be able to locate all supplementary material as well as attend to coursework. The university already attempts to help students in this way but a more focused, school-centred approach may be more beneficial.

Library tours, for instance, are one area that could be examined. The tours are a vastly underused service, possibly because they are often meaningless to most students. Perhaps instead of generic all-encompassing library tours, specialised guided excursions should be integrated into the timetables of individual courses, helping students locate items needed for their first assignment.

Augmenting services like library tours in a way that makes them more practically useful for students benefits everybody; students would not feel quite so lost early in the year, and lecturers in turn would benefit from better-prepared students. Integrating existing facilities into courses could eliminate many of the teething anxieties faced by new students at UCD.

These small, but significant, issues could be tackled by individual Schools and the Students’ Union without needing any major university input. It is these issues that matter most to students – the latest Ents offerings matter little to a student who is seeking basic information about where to go, or how to do something. Many students need a helping hand throughout their first month in UCD, and a little co-ordination and co-operation between the various bodies within the campus would aid this important but often forgotten issue.

While students mostly – somehow – manage to survive the induction period to college every year, there is always scope for improvement. As UCD celebrates breaking into the top 100 of worldwide university rankings, it can – and should – aim higher and tangibly improve college life for everybody.