A glorious high-country day was the backdrop to a morning of academic pomp, and ceremony on Monday as the University of New England (UNE) welcomed more students back on campus following the forced vacation of the facilities during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
An academic procession and formal welcome ceremony was held for Armidale and college 'Fresher' students at the Booloominbah lawns, followed by lunch for students in the Ingrid Moses Courtyard.
Both UNE chancellor James Harris and vice-chancellor Bridget Heywood said in their respective welcome addresses how wonderful it was to have so many students back on the grounds.
Professor Heywood said there were as many students on the lawn for the ceremony as there had been in the entire year up until then.
The almost 500 new on-campus students are expected to attend various orientation activities as O-Week kicks off, and a further 600 continuing college students will be returning on Thursday.
"We are very much looking forward to welcoming our students to our beautiful campus," Vice-Chancellor and CEO Professor Brigid Heywood said.
"It's been very quiet since the majority of our students had to return home in March 2020, with none of the vitality and energy you usually experience on a campus with students out and about.
"Facilities such as the colleges, the Library and SportUNE are all accessible, and we have a raft of fun but informative activities planned for our students."
New residential students, also known as 'Freshers', arrived on Sunday to settle into their new accommodation.
Under UNE's phased return to campus plan, key residential leaders are already settled in the colleges, having participated in a week of leadership activities.
"To comply with COVID safety measures, we have had to reduce the number we can accommodate in our colleges," Professor Heywood said.
"At this stage, we are still processing applications for students seeking a UNE residential experience.
"We'll continue to monitor the intake of college students to ensure the safety of staff and students."
Masks were de rigueur at Monday's ceremony, and college students will need to stay within their college 'bubbles' at meals and when attending events.
In all other instances, they are outside the bubble and have to comply with NSW government health guidelines.
This week will be dedicated to information on academic matters, providing students with an opportunity to meet with lecturers and other teaching staff and familiarise themselves with their school, the teaching and support staff, and fellow students.
"I'm very happy to announce that UNE will introduce a greater on-campus teaching presence in Trimester 1 with over 80 units approved for face-to-face teaching, including using labs, practicals and some tutorials following necessary risk assessments to comply with our COVID Safe Plan," Professor Heywood said.
Priority units assessed for on-campus teaching are those with an applied practical aspect and are currently most relevant for Science and Agriculture.
When the Express spoke with students during lunch, all were excited to be on campus and looking forward to social and extracurricular activity, but a little disappointed about how many of their lessons were online.
Over the course of the week, students will get to know various campus facilities, learn about handy apps to download such as UNE Safe, meet with residential leaders and mentors, and be introduced to support services such as UNE Counselling and Advocacy.
UNE's numerous clubs and societies will also be actively recruiting new members.
"Getting involved in club life is the best thing students can do to make sure their time at UNE is socially enriched and enjoyable," Professor Heywood said.
"In addition to our college clubs, which is run through each college's Junior Common Room, we have 35 hobby, academic, or sports clubs for students to choose from.
"We're also introducing a brand new 'Friday Nights under the Lights' intercollege sporting competition which has a healthy social component to it.
"Restrictions around COVID-19 remain in place, and COVID marshals will help ensure activities and social distancing are safely managed according to NSW government health guidelines."