by Sarah Marten
Helena Pritchard has a varied and rewarding role helping international students find accommodation at the University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd, South Wales. Building and maintaining relationships with students from all corners of the world, including Africa, Europe, China, the USA and Mexico are key to Helena’s role.
What does your job involve?
I am the first point of contact for our international students who wish to arrange accommodation at the University of Glamorgan. Initial contacts are usually via email, and often comprise enquiries about our halls of residence. As all applications are made online, I direct them towards our website in the first instance. First year students are given priority for rooms in halls, although there is no guarantee of a place. This year has seen a particularly heavy demand on places.
Allocating the right sort of accommodation to a wide range of applicants needs discernment and common sense. Putting a 30 year old postgraduate student with an 18 year old is probably not ideal!
For those students who want to look for private accommodation I use our private sector landlord database. Private landlords must meet health and safety and other legal requirements before we can register them although this area is dealt with by another member of staff.
After the start of term I often get requests from students requesting to terminate accommodation contracts for welfare or financial reasons, which will then be escalated to management level if deemed necessary. I also deal with student room transfers and offer vacant places to students from our waiting lists.
Is there a lot of administrative work?
Yes, the job is mainly admin-based, but that does not make it routine or boring! I allocate rooms using our accommodation software, send contracts for accommodation, check students’ eligibility, and confirm payments, mainly using email.
Marketing activities for the department are also part of my role. I prepare information to go onto our website, which is passed onto our web team in the marketing department to upload. I also update all of our accommodation literature and deliver Open Day presentations using PowerPoint to groups of students and parents ranging in size from 50-200.
Before the start of the autumn term I organise accommodation for students attending the International Welcome Week, where a range of talks and tours of the local area are offered to help students adjust to life in the UK. It is also an opportunity for international students to experience life in halls of residence.
What particular issues do international students face?
International students may not receive their student visa until the last minute, making it very difficult for them to secure accommodation. Because of the additional demands on accommodation this year, we did have students on our doorstep at the start of term desperate to find somewhere to live. These students have just stepped off a plane from overseas, and may have never been away from home before. My role is to offer support in a situation which is clearly very stressful for them. Students are never turned away, and I can utilise emergency accommodation if necessary, although this rarely happens.
Does your workload vary according to the time of year?
The busiest times of the year are between June and October, when we are processing the majority of accommodation applications. The start of term is especially hectic, and we are expected to work at weekends if needed. January and February are also busy months as we have a new intake of international applicants, including our MA students, all of whom need their accommodation sorted out. If we do have a less busy period then this would usually be during the spring.
Who do you work with?
Working within the overall accommodation team of 30 people, I am part of a smaller team of four who have responsibility for the administration within the department. I report directly to our administration manager, and we all enjoy the support a close-knit team gives.
Why did you choose this type of work?
I applied for this job as the idea of being responsible for a group of students appealed to me. Being the first point of contact with students, and supporting them with accommodation throughout their studies until they leave is really rewarding. .
How did you get in to this work?
When I was choosing a career I had no idea about the huge range of jobs that exist within a university, other than lecturer. Growing up in the Isles of Scilly, where my parents owned a hotel gave me lots of experience of hospitality work and customer service. However, I was not convinced that hotel work was for me long-term, and I chose a degree in cultural and media studies. After graduating I spent six months back at the family hotel as assistant manager, where I developed my skills in customer service and dealing with people.
Torn between the beautiful Isles of Scilly and a career further afield, I moved to Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys, and set my heart on a job at the local University of Glamorgan. My hotel background was undoubtedly instrumental in helping me secure a position as Graduate Management Trainee in hospitality, which provided training in catering, business centre and accommodation services. It was during the six-month placement in accommodation, just half-way through my graduate training, that I discovered my passion. As soon as a suitable job was advertised I applied and was accepted.
What are your working hours and how does this affect your work-life balance?
I work from Monday to Friday usually from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm. The university offers flexitime, so if I want to take a slightly longer lunch break and go to an exercise class on campus, I can do so. The working hours give me plenty of time for a life outside work, and despite having to work some weekends during our busiest time of year I am completely happy with this. Planned overtime during this period is paid which always helps! Because of the heavy workload over the summer months, I always aim to take my holidays outside this period.
What skills and personal qualities are important?
The most important quality for my job is patience – at times I need to explain complex legal documents to students for whom English is not their first language. You also need to be very organised and flexible, with good time management skills. The ability to work under pressure is also essential in order to deal with a large and sometimes stressful workload. And of course being friendly, approachable and calm are paramount.
What sort of training does the University offer?
The University of Glamorgan offers an excellent range of courses, and I have benefitted from many, including how to deal with difficult people, first aid, cross-cultural awareness, assertiveness training and IT. I have also just completed an online distance learning Diploma in Management course from the University of Wales, for which I received financial help towards the fees. I am currently considering starting a master’s programme in Professional Development at the University of Glamorgan.
What are some of the other benefits of working in a University?
As well as access to excellent training, staff also benefit from a range of services, including the campus gym, health centre and counselling services.
Which of your qualifications have been the most useful?
Although my degree in cultural and media studies is not directly relevant to this job, the transferable skills I developed, including time management, organisational and presentation skills have definitely helped me. Of course the customer service experience I gained whilst working in the family hotel has also been hugely beneficial.
What do you enjoy about your job? Any dislikes?
I have never had a job that I enjoy as much as this one! There is so much satisfaction in helping people, and our international students are so appreciative of everything we do. I love to hear stories about their home countries and culture. There is also so much variety and no two days are ever the same.
The only aspect of the job I don’t enjoy as much is data entry, but you just have to get on with this and accept it as part of the work.
What prospects are there and what ambitions do you have?
I am really happy in my present role and have no immediate plans to move on, although within the university there are excellent opportunities for progression. Possibilities could include accommodation or administration management, or other posts with international students including support roles or marketing and recruitment.
What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
Until I ended up living near to the University of Glamorgan, I had never considered a career in higher education. I wish I had known about the wide range of opportunities earlier on.
If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?
Having spent some time travelling in Australia I have always thought it would be great to return and work there, so visa permitting I would probably investigate opportunities down under!
Helena Pritchard left school with A levels in Geography English and Theatre Studies. She then went to the University of the West of England to study a BA Hons in Cultural and Media Studies. After completing her degree, Helena travelled in New Zealand and Australia. Having helped with the family hotel on the Isles of Scilly during vacations Helena returned there as assistant manager once she returned from her overseas travelling. After six months she moved to Pontypridd in South Wales, where she secured a post as a graduate management trainee in hospitality at the University of Glamorgan. 18 months later Helena was appointed as International Accommodation Officer.
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