How we’re navigating 2020 with Burgmann spirit

How we’re navigating 2020 with Burgmann spirit

The penultimate year to Burgmann College’s golden 50th has thrown us so many challenges—unprecedented bushfires, giant hail, and the COVID-19 pandemic. But one upheaval after another has only served to show the strength and tenacity of the Burgmann spirit.

Burgie traditions have kept our community buoyed up and connected through the most trying moments of 2020, while the collective grit and determination of our staff, residents and board have ensured the College’s continuing survival.

Like other small independent not-for-profit residential colleges, Burgmann operates with just a narrow margin of contingency. 

“We had three months’ worth of operating reserve in the bank for any foreseeable crisis—except that COVID-19 was not one we foresaw,” says Greg Mills, Chair of the Burgmann College Board of Management.

The indefinite closure of ANU and instruction to all students to go home if they could safely do so, just five weeks into semester one, thrust Burgmann into sudden financial jeopardy, on top of managing the anxiety and safety of residents.

The extraordinary summer bushfires had already created a smoke hazard that led to residents being evacuated for hours in the middle of the night, and finally closing down the National Youth Science Forum—an important source of revenue for Burgmann during the summer break. Then the giant hailstorm on 20 January destroyed the College’s newly installed roofs.

But all of this seemed manageable when the academic year began.

“We had a very typical, fantastic start to semester one,” says Acting Principal Amelia Zaraftis. “COVID was barely on our radar at that stage.”

As the seriousness of the situation began to register, the Board of Management, which meets 10 times per year, began to meet weekly—continuing to do so throughout the crisis—to plan for the safety of residents, work on the continuity of the business plan, and assess cashflow, “just to see if we would get through,” says Greg.

These weekly meetings included the three resident representatives, who juggled studies with board papers, while gaining even more exceptional insights into the role of governance.     

“It was an existential crisis for Burgmann; a testing time for the board, the staff and the residents,” says Greg. “But it was also a very, very rewarding experience for me and, I hope, the residents as well. The incredible engagement of staff and residents throughout this time was a real highlight.”

President of the Burgmann Residents’ Association (BRA), Ben Jefferson, agrees.

“Some of the most memorable moments were for a bad reason initially: realising just how serious it was, trying to figure out what we can do. They were some of the most momentous and unsettling weeks of my life.

“We spent so much time last year as a leadership team talking about what we wanted 2020 to look like, and then we got to March and it seemed like all the things that made College college were being taken away from us—apart from sleeping and eating.”

Within a few days of knowing the Burgmann community would be dispersed (only 60 residents would remain on-site), one of the first initiatives of BRA was the rebirth of the Burgmann 2RS radio station as “Burg FM”. Through the hard work of a committed team of 20 residents, this became an astonishingly successful means for keeping the community together while apart.

With 30-plus hours of weekly programming, run via the web by 50 radio hosts and around 50 weekly participants, the team brought Burgmann into homes. The eclectic mix included “Plato’s Rave” philosophy discussions, “Mr Morgan’s Late-Night Smooth Jazz Hour”, trivia nights and sports shows, with at least half of the airtime dedicated to sharing personal Burgie experiences. 

“We tried to get as many residents involved as possible,” says Ben. “It effectively became the ‘centre’ of Burgmann. People said they wouldn’t have contacted their friends so much if they hadn’t had to put together a show, and there have been messages to us saying, 'I never thought I'd feel this connected to College when I'm so far away’."

Other initiatives, such as “Burgovision” (the Burgmann version of Eurovision, with live streamed finals) and Principal Sally Renouf’s virtual hosting of Luigi’s, as traditional, at the Lodge on a Sunday, helped keep the Burgie family connected. This was especially important for first year residents who had only spent seven weeks “learning the ropes” of university before transitioning to Zoom.

“Our Resident Advisors and the BRA executive did such a great job behind the scenes to keep the community going,” says College Dean Paterson Boyd. 

“The first years had only known each other for a few weeks, but big groups of them lived in the same cities and kept in touch—to have that bond after only a small amount of time was extraordinary.”
Amelia attributes the exceptionally high resident return rate of 98% to these efforts.

“The virtual program for connecting residents across the country must be credited with why our return rate was so high. They really did an incredible job. And whilst they were doing that important work, we were communicating any updates when we could. 

“We were so happy that so many of our residents wanted to come home to Burgmann.”

A staggered return began on 8 July: first, about 40 resident leaders were welcomed back to participate in refresher training and to give the new health and safety compliance protocols a test-run. Then two weeks later, we welcomed and inducted 40 residents daily over the course of a week to return to full operation.  

“We had to warn them, ‘You’re not returning to College life as you know it’—we had to reinforce the compliance rules for returning,” says Amelia. “For example, we could only have four people to a dining table instead of eight, which really changes the dynamic. 

“But we’re trying to return the College to as normal as possible. The Dining Hall reopened as an evening study space in late August, to residents’ great joy; the Resident Advisors are finding ways to make the “Tim-Tam” evenings work; “Christmas in July” is still happening.”

For some Burgies, it has not been so easy to reunite with friends and resume their studies, however. University students across Australia have been impacted by the sudden loss of part-time and casual work to support themselves financially, while their families have also struggled—some of them still recovering from fighting to save their homes from bushfire. 

This meant some residents were not initially able to accept the invitation to return. However, with the generous support of an alumnus, Burgmann was able to draw down on its Bursary Fund to help these residents.

Residents from Victoria have also been affected by the state’s second wave of COVID. Some were granted an exemption to return to the ACT to self-quarantine for the required two weeks, but others are still waiting for border restrictions to lift, hoping to return to their residential experience.  

Ben says the experience of distance education gave him a new appreciation not only for the benefits of face-to-face learning, but also the extraordinary educational value added by the residential experience.

“Learning online is less effective, it just doesn’t translate as well,” he says. “Plus, you lose access to computer labs, software, printers and printing credit. Lots of students in regional areas couldn’t access their classes by Zoom because they didn’t have the Internet strength. 

“But what I didn’t realise is how a college like Burgmann makes learning so much more powerful—the people you have daily contact with, who are able to help you with your studies and share perspectives. You miss that. College, fundamentally, is about providing a really rich learning environment. Online, there’s nothing that can replace that experience.”

Burgmann’s staff have been essential to the residents’ safe return. A special community at the best of times, they have gone an extra level of “above and beyond” to look after residents during this challenging chapter. 

Paterson played a key role in planning the pastoral care and support networks for the current 260 residents and says the “stand-out” for him has been the dedication and work ethic of the staff.

“I’ve been really encouraged by the willingness of my colleagues to go the extra mile to give these young people a home again and have their university experience, ensuring they are safe but still enjoying themselves.

“It’s been overwhelming to see everyone coming to work every day and put in that effort, when they are also experiencing stress. We have housekeeping staff in their 70s who are still going up and down the stairs helping the kids, teaching them to iron their shirts, letting us know who might need more support.

“Every resident is having a different experience—the financial loss, the limited capacity to socialise are manifesting in different ways; some act out, some go very quiet. My job is to make sure we support everyone in the way they need, but ALL of our staff are an integral part of these support systems.”

This collaborative effort, combined with the JobSeeker government subsidy, a bank loan holiday, and the hard work of the leadership team to make every dollar go further, have helped Burgmann stay afloat—and we are looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2021 with even more enthusiasm and gratitude. 

Ben already knows how much this community will mean to him beyond this year of turbulence and his university studies. 

“As the child of ANU alumni, I’ve seen how significant the Burgmann experience is to my father and to family friends, and how the connections you make here last a lifetime. 

“I hope all alumni feel the same passion I do for helping Burgmann to sustain its history. It’s an institution that continues with you through your whole life journey.”

Help support our current and future residents with a gift to Burgmann.

Section: 

  • Front Page