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Introducing Otago’s new Director of Student Services

Monday 21 July 2014 8:08am

KarynThomson outside with quote image
Otago’s new Director of Student Services Karyn Thomson. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

With an air of quiet efficiency and warmth, Otago’s new Director of Student Services Karyn Thomson is finding her feet in Dunedin and at the University.

As Director of Student Services Karyn is responsible for all of Otago’s services that support students – from Campus Watch, to the Māori and Pacific Islands Centres, Disability Information & Support, Student Health, Recreation and Career Services and the Union.

The size of the role meant a month-long handover from former Director David Richardson was extremely useful. But Karyn says the support she has received from all whom she will work with is giving her a great deal of confidence.

“The University has such a good feel. I have a lot to learn, but everyone has been so positive.”

Karyn has been in the tertiary sector for the majority of her working life and has a strong background in managing ‘student experience’, although she started her career as a librarian.

"I was really attracted to this role, as I felt ready for a new challenge and that I have something to contribute to a larger organisation."

In 2002 she received her Advanced Diploma in Business, and six years later her Masters in Management.

In 2008 she managed a project to improve student success at Universal College of Learning UCOL. The two-year, TEC-funded project was focused on Student Success.

UCOL, an ITP (Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic), attracts a largely different cohort of students from Otago, and many of the issues facing them are different, Karyn explains.

“A lot of our students had minimal academic experience, and it could be a real transition for them to enter the tertiary environment. The first six weeks, identified as an ‘at risk’ period, when many would drop out were a major focus. So we made changes to address that – but also looked at the entire life cycle of our students from the moment they applied through to graduation and beyond. We ensured our students had good contact with us before they started so that on day one they were already engaged. We made them aware of the support services we offered, and helped them access these, and also focussed on teaching excellence and academic areas of the institution.

“Many of the issues we discovered have been addressed and a number of the initiatives we introduced have been embedded into business-as-usual at UCOL. It was a very satisfying process to be involved in.”

She says being able to put processes in place that helped young people achieve their goals was humbling.

“Some of the students at UCOL came from very difficult backgrounds, but the changes these young people were capable of making with their lives were astounding. I developed a huge amount of respect for them, and to be able to contribute to that is very affirming.”

From this project, Karyn became Director of Student Experience at UCOL, responsible for health and disability, international pastoral care, libraries and learning support across the institution’s three campuses in Palmerston North, Wanganui and Masterton.

All of this has prepared her for her new role at Otago.

“I was really attracted to this role, as I felt ready for a new challenge and that I have something to contribute to a larger organisation. Otago’s focus on ‘outstanding student experiences’ was very appealing, and I feel passionate about contributing to this.”

"Dunedin is a great little city...It is challenging being away from family and friends, but I feel positive we will enjoy it here."

The mission of Student Services is to provide services that enable students to develop their full potential and to reach their educational goals – something she feels strongly about.

“The teams I have responsibility for are on the ground, and involved with students on a daily basis. All of them make a difference to the experience of individual students.”

Karyn and her husband Lee are settling into life in Dunedin – just the two of them now that their two sons have left home.

“Dunedin is a great little city. The cultural experiences here are exceptional – we have enjoyed so much already including the ballet, plays, art galleries the library, cafes and of course the shopping. It is challenging being away from family and friends, but I feel positive we will enjoy it here.”