Alison Hemsley's story
On track for lifelong wellbeing
"All students living in residence are in some way positively affected by living with others."
Alison Hemsley, student residence manager
Alison Hemsley wants the students who live at Kooloobong Village to aim high, but she doesn’t only mean academically.
Soon to be the largest of the University of Wollongong’s residences, Kooloobong Village is the first in the world to adopt the principles of positive psychology in a student community.
Ms Hemsley, its student residence manager, wants the young people who live there to aspire to a fulfilling life – not just an outwardly successful one. “It’s not only about feeling good. It’s also about functioning well.”
That can be about developing the stamina to withstand the stresses of a years-long difficult course, for those who have been used to the relatively quicker gratification of high school study.
“They may not have had that experience of endurance, and patience,” says Ms Hemsley. “It’s a precious skill, to work towards something for a period of time.”
The positive psychology approach is also about reaching out to other people, and being reflective about one’s own behaviour and perspectives.
She believes a focus on wellbeing in early adulthood can lay the foundations for strong relationships and good decisions all through life, and that the move to uni presents a perfect opportunity to establish positive habits.
She wants students to ask themselves, “What was purposeful today? What is it that contributes to a really meaningful or happy day?”
In the first semester of 2014 Kooloobong Village was already housing its full contingent of 553 mainly first year students, after opening its main building only months earlier. Half are domestic Australian, many of them from country NSW, 10% from the US, and the others from just about anywhere else in the world – 44 nations are represented.
It is clear from the first moment that this is not just somewhere to sleep. On arrival students are asked to complete a positive wellbeing survey. It asks them how strongly they agree or disagree with statements such as “I am optimistic about my future” and “I know what gives meaning to my life”.
The survey orients students to the priorities of Kooloobong Village, ahead of more detailed self-evaluations that help people identify their weaknesses, strengths, including those which are still under-developed, and “learned behaviours” – areas in which they perform well but do not inspire them.
These tools – all of which are optional – may prompt students to reflect deeply on their study plans, and that may be uncomfortable particularly for those whose cultures highly value education and professional status as a means of supporting an extended family.
“It’s asking, ‘is what you’re studying bringing out your strengths?’” Ms Hemsley says. “Some students really struggle with that.”
Kooloobong Village offers group learning in techniques to cultivate wellbeing – meditation, mindfulness, and an introduction to such concepts as gratitude, compassion, goal-setting, and “strength spotting”, which focuses on identifying things other people are good at and encouraging them.
In its communal spaces, movie nights, cultural celebrations, yoga groups and cooking classes are organised by trained student leaders who are paid for their part-time roles.
The leaders are the designated go-to people when students have concerns about themselves or others, and are trained in suicide prevention, first aid, mental health first aid and positive psychology. They include Ninan, in his fifth year of engineering study, who says he “used to be a bit of a hermit”. Kooloobong Village allowed him to gently extend his social repertoire and he has discovered he is an extremely gregarious person.
That discovery has recast his career ideas, says Ninan, from the UK, who already works alongside his study. He now expects to focus on engineering management, not just on technical accomplishment. “It’s being able to relate to people in a more personal sense,” he says. “You learn to be more of a leader than a boss.”
Sarah, at the start of her second year, has recognised that her “modest and quiet” persona was only part of the picture. She has gained confidence and derives great satisfaction from having made a happy transition from her country NSW high school to university, where she has made numerous friends and become involved in many activities.
The transition to student life is “intense and intimate”, says Ms Hemsley. “All students living in residence are in some way positively affected by living with others.”