Helping hundreds of hurricane-hit students to return to university

Reunion for AUC students at the UCLan welcome event

Looking back on the last three weeks, I am once again reminded of how wonderful University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) staff are at working together to support the students’ experience – especially in a crisis.

It all started with an email: “Lisa, could we find 600 student accommodation beds by the end of the week?”

Like many others, I had watched on the news the devastation that hurricane Irma caused to the Caribbean islands but more importantly the trauma suffered by so many people. I never imagined that I would meet over 650 of them within the following two weeks!

I soon learnt all about the American University of the Caribbean (AUC). How their neighbourhood and surrounding homes had been destroyed by the hurricane and how they were facing the possibility of having to delay their education for a year.

UCLan Student Union President Sana Iqbal meets AUC students

Whilst my Senior Leadership Team colleagues set about assessing the feasibility of providing teaching facilities and legal agreements, I was asked to lead on student wellbeing, which essentially means, anything non-academic. I drafted in staff from all of our professional services to find housing (including renting homes for those with families), considered logistical issues such as getting them to the university from the US, registering them with a GP, opening bank accounts, accessing our library and IT facilities and organising a welcome event. The list seemed endless!

At this point, I should mention that this didn’t happen at a quiet time of year – it happened straight after our own Welcome Week. Whilst this meant staff were tired from welcoming our own students, they were already in the right frame of mind for welcoming new arrivals.

Because of the phenomenal teamwork that exists between our professional services, we soon had volunteers from across the sections briefed and ready to go. I also had the pleasure of meeting ten AUC staff who arrived ahead of the students – Alex Carrasco and team. They had personally experienced the hurricane, yet they were the nicest, friendliest, most positive people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

The first flights landed on Monday, 25 September and continued throughout the week, with just over 650 students arriving in five days. Thursday was our busiest day; collecting 350 students from the airport, shuttling them back to Preston by coach and allocating accommodation.

It was on Thursday that I first met the Townsend family. I was helping with luggage and felt someone tug on my leg. I looked down to see a four-year-old boy looking worried, so I sat down on the floor and asked him what was wrong. He asked me if it was windy in Preston because lots of people and bags had been blown away at home. His worry was compounded by the fact that the family had been separated from one of their bags at the airport. I chatted to the family for a while before we found them temporary hotel accommodation and thankfully reunited them with the bag. We have since helped them rent a house, enabling the children to settle in quickly for the duration of their stay.

Together – AUC students get set for their UCLan university experience

The generosity of our university staff has been inspiring. So many people have offered to help, for example finding local playgroups for those with children. Our Students’ Union has made all the AUC students associate members, which gives them the opportunity to join our clubs and societies and mix with our own students. Both groups of students are already planning some volunteering events together. The team that run our sports facilities has also given the students associate membership status at the gym, not only for the students, but for their partners too!

We’ve also had to rely very heavily on our external partners, especially private sector accommodation providers who have gone out of their way to be flexible. As always our colleagues at Preston Police have been incredibly helpful in every way; even offering to do an ‘experience’ day for the children, some of whom told me they want to be police officers when they grow up.

I was also lucky enough to participate in the AUC welcome event, which we housed in our sports hall, the only venue big enough to seat everyone at once. I looked around at the packed venue, the joy on the students’ faces as they reunited with their friends and smiled at my AUC colleagues. We really had achieved something special.

All 650 of these students can now continue their education uninterrupted. Of equal importance is the fact they have the added bonus of being able to study in the UK and make new friends, which I have no doubt will be for life.

Further reading