The highlight of the year for any association is the annual conference and as a board member of The International Town and Gown Association (ITGA) it is an event I look forward to with (burger?) relish each year – sadly we were unable to attend in person – hopefully I will get to see Milwaukee one day. The ITGA were ready to deliver an excellent on-line conference and this year they at least had some additional time to plan – 2020 was definitely a pivotal moment to pivot for the association.

At every conference there is always at least one exciting session that inspires and motivates delegates to bring home ideas and designs with a desire to replicate something similar in their own area, or a session that moves the listener to an extent that it leaves a lasting impression and reminds them of the reason our area of work is important – I took two standout take-away’s from the ITGA Conference 2021.

Steve Patterson, Mayor, Athens, Ohio and Cory Peterson, Director Office of Neighborhood Life, Georgetown University delivered a panel session which was the culmination of one of the Town-Gown Turnaround webinar sessions held earlier in the year via ITGA.

A panel of students were drawn together from the U.S., Canada and the U.K.; we were delighted that our very own Manchester students took part in the panel. The discussion highlighted student voices and how they had lived, learned and experienced university both inside and outside the virtual classroom.

The students were very candid and spoke eloquently about how the pandemic had affected them and how they had risen to the challenges of a lack of usual activity – the loss of athletics, leisure, extracurricular activities all featured heavily in this discussion. Students also spoke bravely about how the pandemic had effected their mental health and how they had managed to work through that by, in some cases, reaching out for university support and in other cases relying on peer support.

The testimonies were certainly unembellished and the students were not afraid of speaking their truth when it came to what institutions could have done better. Communications were a recurring theme and whether it was too much or not enough it was a clear call from the student panel that comms may need to recalibrate when trying to reach their intended audience….

The second standout session for me was Colorado State University and the City of Fort Collins who introduced a key civic community curriculum. This wasn’t my first rodeo with Colorado State’s innovative citizenship course – I first heard about it a number of years ago when I was lucky enough to attend an in-person ITGA conference – Emily Allen (outgoing ITGA President) originally designed this pioneering module and I was keen to see how it had developed, particularly through a covid lens.

CityWorksEDU is billed as a dynamic, field trip based, semester long course. The module promises to challenge students to radically participate and partake in self-guided civic experiences while expanding their knowledge of local government models, “Good Neighboring” and help shape government impact on community while making their voices heard. The presenters, who had inherited Emily’s original module design, were left with the task of making it relevant during the pandemic – CSU students were invited to get involved with the local authority’s waste water testing programme in lieu of the usual field trips and visits to city buildings. The outcomes this year were all very positive and assisted the City of Fort Collins to better map covid levels in the area. Despite the challenges that were faced the course remains a popular module for sign up and has a waiting list for participants each year.

We would love to replicate a similar, academically credited model here in Manchester and will be presenting the idea to our senior leaders at the first opportunity. If anyone else out there has managed to do something similar we would love to hear about the challenges and successes that such a programme has brought…get in touch.

Cooper Healey, is Manager of Manchester Student Homes and Chair of The UKTGA. Cooper is also Board Member of the ITGA.