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Stephen Williams, Director NTU Global, Nottingham Trent University, UK, shares details of the University’s response to supporting wider community in COVID-19 effort

NTU Global Lounge – from physical to virtual

Launched in 2013, our award-winning Global Lounges have become a key student service at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). Our two Lounges are multi-functional hubs where students are enabled to internationalise their learning at NTU. They can participate in international activities on campus to learn about world cultures and share their own while meeting other students from around the globe. They can also learn about opportunities to explore the world through NTU such as international study and work placements. Key to our Global Lounges’ success have been the peer-to-peer support and student-led activities provided by the Global Lounge Assistants, a team of student ambassadors managed by a full-time year-long student placement recruited on an annual basis.

All on-campus activities organised by the Global Lounges are free and open to all students and staff. The Lounges play a vital role in welcoming students to the University and to the City while creating a strong community and long-lasting connections. The Lounges also provide important personal and social support to international students during their time at NTU and prior to March 2020, the numbers of students who visited the Lounges was steadily rising each year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our Global Lounges welcomed over 30,000 visits per academic year from students and staff including over 200 students to our community lunches each week.

The Lounges are however more than just a room for fun social or cultural events – we offer so much more. We continually look for ways to create meaningful experiences for students that will not only enable them to learn about other cultures or make friends with someone from another country, but also to use these experiences to enhance their employability.

Supporting students through the coronavirus crisis

Upon learning in mid-March that we had to close the Lounges, we were challenged with developing a way in which we could continue to support students socially and offer meaningful experiences to them from a distance. After some discussion with students on what would best meet their interests and needs, the idea of developing a Virtual Global Lounge at NTU was born.

Although the idea of a Virtual Global Lounge wasn’t new, the current situation only highlighted the need for and importance of it. As soon as campus closures were announced, the Global Lounge team of students and staff worked quickly to launch the Virtual Global Lounge (VGL). The VGL is a platform designed to bring students together in a virtual community to combat loneliness by connecting students online and providing social support through promoting mental and social wellbeing and inclusivity.

The VGL is also meant to be a source of fun and entertainment for students who are self-isolated and experiencing boredom. Through the VGL we continue to offer some of the popular student-led activities we ran in the physical Lounges, such as Language Café, games afternoons, and our book club. These activities are led by our placement student, a team of Global Lounge Assistants (UK and international student ambassadors) and volunteers, to utilise authentic student insight and encourage peer-to-peer connections. This team of students discuss and put forward ideas for daily activities, organise games and quizzes, as well as lead our virtual Language Café “tables”, which enable other students to keep practising languages with peers from their own home while connecting with old friends or meeting new people.

The Global Lounge Assistants also run regular live chats at lunch and afternoon teas, to be there for students in case they want to have a chat with a fellow student rather than member of staff. The Assistants often put forward ideas to theme the chats through running an activity, such as a craft or a cooking workshop. We’ve also started running themed chats with other departments, to encourage students to drop in and discuss certain topics or ask questions.

The VGL has been such a success that the University is now using it to provide important information and content from across the University as a way to signpost students to relevant professional services that can provide guidance and support during this time. It has also become the key platform for other key services at NTU such as Student Support (for both UK and international students), Health and Wellbeing, Faith and Chaplaincy, Employability, Accommodation, Study Abroad, NTU Library and others. Each of these services has a ‘channel’ on the VGL where they directly connect with students, host events and share important information with them.

“There are different channels catered to each individual, if you’re bored you can visit the “Things to do at home” channel and if you want to engage with others, you can visit the “Language Café” or “Games Afternoons” channels. There is something for everybody, whether they wish to be a silent browser or get actively involved.” Ruqaya Malik, LLB (Hons) Law student at NTU

Creating meaningful experiences – even through COVID-19

Through the physical Global Lounges, students participate in experiences such as being a Global Lounge Assistant (paid student ambassador role), Language Café Volunteer, Global Week Volunteer or a Global Lounge Cultural Ambassador. These structured experiences offer students the chance to develop key skills such as teamwork, organisation and communication skills, and intercultural competencies. Participation in these experiences is recorded on each student’s Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) that accompanies their degree transcript. We wanted to ensure these opportunities are still open to students as much as possible even through the COVID-19 crisis. The VGL has enabled our Global Lounge Assistants to keep organising and running events and supporting other students, as well as leading live chats to speak with other students through online video calls. We also actively encourage students to organise virtual cultural events and continue helping students practise languages on the VGL.

Students have fed back that they want to be able to continue to participate in “normal” opportunities – they don’t want to lose out on engaging with a diverse group of students because they are not on campus. This means it is more important than ever to ensure we keep our international community going and continue to offer meaningful experiences to students. We are confident that this is just the beginning for our Virtual Global Lounge which we plan to continue to develop and operate beyond the current crisis and develop it into another key service for NTU students. We are already discussing online international opportunities for next year in collaboration with our strategic international partners that can be hosted on the VGL and reach an even wider network of globally connected students across continents.