An initial review of support platforms currently available at universities revealed that while information portals for students exist in a variety of formats (such as the extensive portal at the University of Graz), they mostly focus on administrative issues, such as study planning or financial topics. There are currently no anonymously available support measures which focus explicitly on students’ sense of belonging or difficulties in adapting to academic life or an “academic habitus”. In most cases, in order to access support, students have to actively address – mostly offline – contact points and make a personal claim that they are part of a group in need of specific help.
The main target group of the platform are students in the transition phase during the first semester. The offerings target all student groups and do not single out a specific demographic student clientele. Experience has shown that introducing novel support mechanisms to a beginner cohort is most effective as the support mechanism becomes part of their student experience from the beginning. However, access to the platform can at any time be extended to students of all semesters.
The proposed online support platform is a web-based add-on which can be added to the respective partner websites and/ or university apps. By familiarizing a beginner cohort with the platform, it is sought to function as a regular companion through student life, supporting students from the get-go as they navigate through their educational experience.
The content of the platform itself is tailored to each of the three participating higher education institutions, their respective backgrounds and the specific needs of their student population. It focuses on students’ sense of belonging and the social cultural and intellectual integration into academic life and addresses difficulties, problems and challenges of students entering the new environment of higher education. Thus, feelings of isolation and disorientation should increasingly be perceived as normal and affecting all students alike.
The platform will include podcasts, (animated) videos, blog articles, interviews etc. by students who deal or have dealt with different kind of problems (e.g. sense of belonging, trust, emotional security, isolation, unable to build connections to fellow students or academic language/habitus). Throughout different formats students will describe how they have dealt with these challenges, how they solved these problems, where to find contact points, etc. It also serves as an information portal, bundling advice and – previously dispersed – information or existing initiatives, for example on student self-help groups, social events, etc.
This platform aims at facilitating orientation, providing adequate, student-centered information to dissolve unspecific feelings of being out of place and not welcome and thus improving the identification with the higher education institution and the students’ sense of belonging. The platform should help to lower students’ risk of drop-out and to successfully graduate. Additionally, it should help students to gain competences to overcome their challenges.