Leaving families to go to university is one of the most daunting experiences young people face. It was no different for University of Otago student, Brandon Roberts – though the last thing he expected was to form a new family.
Roberts believes that's exactly what happens when students choose to live at a University of Otago residential college.
He grew up on a farm in the Hawke's Bay and is in his first year studying Sport and Exercise Science. He knew "quite a few" people from Hawke's Bay who were also going to study at Otago, but moving to Dunedin was still a big deal, he says: "I was really excited but a bit nervous because it was a total change of scenery".
He chose to live at Studholme College and says staff made a big effort at the beginning of the year, helping students have fun and get to know each other. That extra effort paid off.
"In the first few weeks, we had a beach trip, inter-floor games, hall bonding events and then the "O" Week events. Just doing things together was really good. They put on inter-college sports days, so making friends through sport was really awesome.
"Studholme has a real family vibe. A lot of my really good mates at Studholme aren't studying what I am; they're from different backgrounds and I really like that. I would never have met them if I didn't live here."
Now in his final term of the year, Brandon will go flatting next year, but will miss Studholme College and all the friends he's made: "I'll miss the camaraderie, just being around your really good mates 24/7. I have made so many awesome friends and had heaps of awesome experiences.
"But I'm going flatting with four of my best mates from Studholme. We have a pretty big friends group and everyone looks out for each other. That bond was created there."
University of Otago Colleges of Residence are home to thousands of new students every year. Studholme College warden Johnny Nu'u knows exactly what it feels like to move away from home for the first time and how important it is to connect with other students as well as staff in the first year of university.
"Their hikoi is very much the same as my own when I first came to Otago as a student from Auckland in the early 2000s," he says. "Being a Pacific male away from my family, I recognise how our new students are feeling. It's a shock. There are natural nerves. People are unsure about how it is going to work out.
"Over the first couple of weeks, we work hard to create opportunities to forge those bonds and create relationships between them. My job is to make sure they find that sense of belonging.
"All colleges have a very extensive orientation programme for new students. At Studholme College, we have quiz nights, sports games, sports days and opportunities for them to connect. They also have a chance to meet academic tutors. It creates a bit of comfort for them - that they can come to us if they need anything, and it creates the ability for us to check in regularly.
"Aside from your basics in terms of making sure they are attending classes, my job is to be a kind ear, to have a conversation with them to see if there is any support they need apart from academic support. My job is to take care in terms of their personal, spiritual and emotional well-being."
"We also instil university goals and aspirations as well implementing a bit of tough love every now and again."
Nu'u believes the experience of being away from home creates the opportunity for students to step up and make good choices.
"It's hugely important. It's a learning and growing opportunity for them. The first step was choosing to come here. A massive part of their learning is to back themselves and their choices."
The holistic approach to student wellbeing has obvious impacts for academic performance and the 14 residential colleges at the University of Otago all have special relationships with academic faculties, further strengthening academic performance.
"The academic support is a given for us," says Nu'u. "We encourage them and work closely with academic faculties to make sure students are supported. That settles the academic nerves. Our close relationships enable us to get alongside students and see what they're up to. Everyone's keeping an eye out for students."
According to Nu'u, each college has a uniqueness and special character in terms of what they aspire to: "The basics are all there, regardless of where a young person ends up. Studholme is about being family-friendly. My wife and child have regular meals with our young people.
"I was that young, fresh-faced 17-year-old coming down to Otago - so it's important to keep building that sense of belonging for students.
"Some of the students come from very competitive schools where it has been very hierarchical. But I want them to feel they can come to someone easy to talk to if they have a problem.
"Our core values are of being supported and feeling a sense of belonging. The reason I do my job is because I like seeing these young people succeed - not just academically, but as individuals."
Nu'u says his reward is watching students grow from being quite tentative at the beginning of the year to becoming confident "and seeing the learning journey they have taken" at the end of the year.
"The sense of family and friendships that you form last a lifetime. When you arrive, you have no choice but to rally around each other and rely on each other. They go their own way after they graduate, but they never forget each other."
Senior Warden of the Otago residential Colleges, Jamie Gilbertson has a leadership role with all colleges – and says Roberts' story is typical. Each college has its own character and style and provides excellent support services for youth in transition from home to university.
Gilbertson says college life is about unique bonds between residents and staff, a great experience and academic success, something Otago has been proud of for 150 years and which makes the Otago college experience special.
For more information, visit our website otago.ac.nz/accommodation