Fifteen to One | Rebecca O'Hare

The University welcomes thousands of new and returning students each year. But to ensure they receive the best possible welcome to Leeds, countless colleagues work tirelessly behind the scenes.

Fifteen to One, Rebecca O'Hare, October 2023

On the theme of recognising and thanking our amazing staff community, we caught up with Rebecca O’Hare, Interim Deputy Director of Residential Services.

Rebecca reflects on this year’s accommodation intake, celebrates the efforts of other colleagues and looks ahead to the seasonal fun of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and continuing to improve the student experience.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

The professional answer is that as Interim Deputy Director of Residential Services I hold responsibility for the Accommodation Office, Residence Life team, oversee the day-to-day operations of our residences and ensure standards are met for students living in our partner accommodation. The quirky answer is that I support all of the above and all with a sprinkle of unicorns and rainbows.

When did you join the University?

I’m very happy to say that I’m approaching my three-year anniversary having joined in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020. The world was in an incredible state of flux during that period and I was happy that I could join at a time when Residential Services were delivering incredible efforts to support students who were living in our halls at that time.

How did the recent 2023-24 accommodation intake go?

Wonderfully! It’s no mean feat ensuring our accommodation is ready to meet our student’s expectations especially after a busy conference and refurbishment period. But with the support of dedicated and hardworking Senior Residence Managers, Residence Managers and their teams, they did a fantastic job. In addition, our Accommodation Office team take enormous pride in getting allocations and accommodation offers just right. It’s akin to a magical game of Tetris with each allocation affecting the next and is quite the art form. Unlike many universities, we offer many options to ensure all students can have an equitable student experience in halls and with the added support of our Residence Life team, I believe we offer one of the best halls experiences in the country.

Seeing someone arrive in halls, whether on their own or with support, can be a poignant time for everyone. Is there one moment that sticks in your mind as particularly memorable?

Every year I cry during intake. It’s hard not to when you see such public display and a range of emotions from students, their family members and supporters. Hugs last a little longer, tissues are ready to hand out and you’ll often see residence team members, including myself, comforting everyone and anyone, even the family dogs who are brought along too. Arrival into halls is quite literally our Christmas and I’ve never met a student accommodation professional who doesn’t love that time of year.

A lot of my funny intake experiences stem from Ireland and the reluctance of the lovely ‘Irish mammy’ to cut the strings and let their beloved child gain some independence. We often receive a range of random requests from well-meaning family members including one who insisted I knock on their son’s door each and every morning to ensure they got up for their lectures, another who was appalled we did not provide toasted sandwich makers, and a lovely grandparent who quite literally gave me a pineapple as a thank you gift!

What’s coming up in Residence Life and the Accommodation Office that you’re most looking forward to working on?

The first semester I find is always the best. It kicks off with welcoming students and encouraging students to try new things and then we’re straight into the seasonal fun of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and more. I enjoy seeing students starting to find their feet and settle in, but each year it isn’t plain sailing for everyone and that’s where the support of the Residence Life team via the Res Life Assistants and Wardens comes into its own. What I’m really looking forward to are the ‘back to the floor’ days I’ve scheduled in with all our residence teams. It’s imperative to remain close to operations on the ground and get a clear understanding of the challenges all team members face and hear the ideas they have to improve the student experience. 

Did you get involved in any Welcome Week activities this year?

My roots in student accommodation are in residence operations and in the creation and delivery of effective and memorable Residence Life programs so I can never resist getting involved when time allows. It provides me with an amazing opportunity to meet our students and undertake a student facing role for a few hours and I adore it. This year I donned the recognisable purple Residence Life uniform and gave a hand at the ‘All Halls Welcome BBQ’ which we delivered with assistance from the events team at LUU. Effectively the team took over the precinct area and we attracted over 1,300 students to the event. When designing any Residence Life event, it is always underpinned by a feeling of “What if nobody comes?” so you can imagine the huge sense of pride and happiness I felt for the team when students quite literally began arriving in their droves.  

What’s the most common question you’ve been asked in your role?

Do you get the summer off? I’ve been asked it every year since I began working in student accommodation in 2008. If anything the summer period is busier as our residence teams support a multitude of conference events, language schools and short stays on top of the preparations required ahead of A level results and the intake period. Due to the range of postgraduate accommodation we offer, our teams in those residences quite literally only have five days to completely turnaround their accommodation from one academic year to the next, so in answer to the question, I definitely don’t get the summer off!

What are your campus highlights?

I feel a huge sense of privilege having the opportunity to work at the University of Leeds and be of service to Residential Services, the teams I lead and importantly our student residents. I literally pinch myself that I get to work here and that is very much rooted in the fact that I’ve spent half of my career working with private student operators. While I enjoyed that experience and it served me well, it never quite hit the mark for me and I always had a long-term ambition of returning to a university community. Being part of this university and campus adds so much more value to my role and makes me feel part of something very special. Campus highlights include enjoying the stunning architecture, and that includes much of our student accommodation too, the buzz and excitement of an open day, the opportunity to work with other university teams like student support, and of course the heron! Did you know it has its own Twitter account? 

What was your very first job?

At 14 my mum arrived home one day and proudly announced she had landed me a Saturday summer job in the local garden shop. I wasn’t looking for a job, it was more a case of my mum felt “it’s time to start learning the art of work young lady!” That experience was pretty formative and if anything it provided me with the regular lump sum of £15, which covered my weekly trip to and from a local club night, enough for a bag of chips on the way home and the ability to arrange a nice bunch of flowers. Wild times indeed. 

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

Incredibly difficult for me to answer as I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some incredible leaders and mentors. However, if I’m honest I’m really inspired by my husband. When the recession hit Ireland in 2008, he was made redundant. Rather than wallow in it, he used it as an opportunity to completely change his career and returned to university at the age of 27 to undertake a second, full-time degree. He won numerous awards and then obtained a place on the NHS grad scheme and a fully funded place on an MSc programme at the University of Manchester. In total, for 7 years he worked incredibly hard, often late into the night completing assignments and the result, he went from working in marketing to working in science! He’s now on the road to achieving the prestigious role of QP (the person who approves medicine for human consumption), having recently completed further study at UCL.

Aside from him, I’m often inspired by those I have the privilege to lead, either in previous or current roles. My absolute passion is helping individuals develop and become confident in their roles and our Accommodation Office, Residence Life and Residence teams are full to the brim of inspirational individuals who day in, day out go out of their way to make a positive impact in the lives of our students. They quite literally make our buildings come alive and help ensure that our halls experience is more than one which just hands students a key to their room. 

What’s your biggest achievement or something you’re really proud of?

Unlike most 17-year-olds, I wasn’t one who was encouraged to learn to drive. For most of my adult life I just didn’t need a driving licence and I had very little desire to obtain one. Until I started commuting from Manchester to Leeds and had to endure the dreadful rail network that is. My plan was to commute by train for six months, but due to COVID, I experienced difficulties getting instructors (I was ghosted by one!), delays in lessons and in sitting driving tests, and so the train commute lasted 2.5 years! I finally passed on the second attempt (with no minors) in March 2023. Despite being proud of many things I’ve achieved in my life, especially my academic endeavours, learning to drive quite literally was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. When the instructor told me I passed, I screamed and shouted “You’ve changed my life Alan!”

What was your dream job when you were a child?

I’m a very creative person and studied art at undergraduate and postgraduate level and even qualified as an art teacher so it won’t surprise you to hear that I wanted to undertake a creative role. My absolute dream job was to work in visual display, which essentially means being the person or part of a creative team who build creative, thematic displays in large stores, shop windows etc. Think Harrods, Selfridges or Macys in New York! While on the surface it may not appear to be, working in student accommodation requires you to be very creative at times, especially when it comes to thinking up methods to engage students and importantly get their attention! My academic training in art has always served the Residence Life side of my career very well.

What makes you laugh the most?

A multitude of things! The joy of working in student accommodation is that no two days are the same and often the stories you hear from within residences are those that make you belly laugh. If you haven’t scrolled through TikTok and are not watching the amazing content University of Leeds students and students generally create, you’re missing out, that stuff keeps me entertained for hours.

Outside of work, if I need a laugh, I’ll be watching Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. I can quote so much of that movie. As a commuter I listen to a lot of podcasts and an absolute favourite I’ve recently gotten back into is The Blindboy Podcast run by a while known Irish artist. His topics are deep and delve into a multitude of topics including psychology, art, science and more but all of it is served up with a sprinkle of unique Irish comedy, which, unless you deeply understand Irish culture and our desire to “have the craic”, might be missed on you.

What do you do to relax away from work?

I love a spinning class, so you can often find me on a spin bike. My husband and I are real foodies and having moved from Manchester city centre to the Manchester burbs, we miss the vast range of cafés, bars and quirky restaurants on our doorstep. We’ll often have a ‘Manchester Day’, whereby we’ll head into the city for the day and try out a couple of new places which will have opened. Aside from that, I’m usually in a vintage market somewhere, trying to look fit and healthy while I make my way up a hill in the Lakes, or, at this time of year, Halloween crafting! I can proudly and confidentially say I have the best outdoor Halloween display in my neighbourhood and the local kids call me “Mrs Halloween”. Arrive at my house on 31 October and there will be queues of children at my door trick or treating.

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

I’m a city gal at heart and as cliché as it may sound, New York has been my first love. I adore it so much, my husband suggested we get married there, and on a crisp autumn day, under Brooklyn Bridge in 2016 surrounded by 12 members of our family and friends, we said “I do”. I’m long overdue a visit and I think my obsession with America as a child and wanting to live in the ‘Home Alone’ house or have an NYC loft apartment like Tom Hanks had in the film ‘Big’, probably contributed to my desire in wanting to live there. I just love the hustle and bustle of the city and the variety of people you meet when you visit. Walking around the city in my wedding dress was the most incredible experience and people quite literally stopped us to wish us well, take photos with us and hear our story.

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