How our ambassadors brought students together in a pandemic

10 May 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May). In light of the past year, and our commitment to mental health as an organisation, we’re running a new blog every day this week from Monday to Friday, focusing on a different aspect of mental health and wellbeing in the Higher Education sector. Head here to see all of our Mental Health Awareness Week content.

Student ambassadors are a real benefit for students living with Unite Students: as well as helping with move-in and running engaging events around the property, they also offer reassurance and peer support to other students. But how have they adapted to the social and wellbeing challenges posed by Covid-19, and what have they learned? Meet Alex and Brian, two of our student ambassadors.

For our New Realists report in 2019, we asked 2,500 students what had been the most accurate source of information about student life; topping the chart was ‘current and former students’. It makes sense - who better to advise on charting a course through unfamiliar waters than those who’ve just navigated it? 

Alex Fiore, a postgraduate computer game engineering student at Newcastle University, and Brian Maitland, a postgrad musical theatre (performance) student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, are just two of the students who offer peer support at Unite Students in their role as student ambassadors. Today, they’re capably presenting a student-facing webinar on what a day in the life of a student ambassador entails. 

Both students are upbeat and enthusiastic about their student ambassador experiences, for which they have total flexibility over their hours and are paid a Living Wage - although there’s another perk that clearly brings them a lot of joy. 

“There’s free pizza - so much pizza!” laughs Alex.

 

Bringing people together through events

A significant proportion of the student ambassador role involves organising events for fellow students - a daunting task with so many social restrictions in place. However, with a bit of creativity, it’s still possible to run fun and well-attended events: Brian has run a virtual Q&A session with Momma Cherri from Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, a gaming competition for the gamers in his property, and online karaoke and dance classes.

However, most ambitious was the ‘Merchant City House’s Got Talent’ online event he put together for his property in November. Edited like a real Britain’s Got Talent episode, this pre-recorded video was broadcast over Zoom and featured about a dozen acts, who performed from their rooms. The talent on offer included a violist, a one-man band, and - the eventual winners - a drag double-act that lip-synced to Britney Spears. 

“I kept my door open during the broadcast, and you could hear laughter and applause across the block - I’ve never heard my accommodation so electrified by one event,” he says. “One student described it as ‘the best Zoom event I’ve ever been in’ - if you make something creative, people will want to come.”

So how do you run a successful online event? Brian swears by four principles: actively including students in the event; befriending most of the students on the site to ensure a decent turn-out; making the event entertaining enough to hold attention; and offering worthwhile incentives to take part. Alex adds that it’s important to get feedback afterwards, and that students feel more comfortable opening up to other students about aspects they think could be improved.

But success isn’t just measured by the number of students who tune into an event, or positive feedback - it’s also about bringing people together.

“Being a student ambassador, you have the opportunity to build bonds between students that can last a lifetime. I’ve helped people who have felt very lonely and getting them in touch with more people has made such an impact and made their entire university experience a little bit better,” Brian says. “No-one’s allowed to go out and see each other, so these events can be a lifeline for these people: it’s something to do and something to be happy about.”

 

A point of contact for new students

Student ambassadors are there for our residents from the day they move in, with move-in weekends being arguably the biggest day of their tenure.

“Building rapport with students starts from day one - you’re the first person a student meets in their accommodation, apart from the receptionist and security guard. Be their friend: that’s my main advice,” shares Brian. This provides a useful point of contact for students when they have questions, but also a friendly face to whom they can go to with stress, anxiety and mental health concerns.

“First years might be lonely or have difficulty making friends - so we talk to them and introduce them to new people. A conversation can do a lot for someone’s confidence in a new city and new living environment,” says Alex. “You’re never responsible for people, but it’s surprising how often offering a hand can help someone in need. It’s not your job to be a therapist - but you can point people where to go and let them know it’s going to be alright.”

Brian adds, “If someone comes to me with a wellbeing question, and it’s something I’ve been through before, I’ll tell them my experiences and how I got through it. That’s generally what people want: a friend. If it’s something I’ve not experienced, I’ll push them in the direction of a welfare lead.”

 

What impact does the role have on Brian and Alex’s own wellbeing?

“Off days come with any job, but there’s a good supportive environment here to help you through them,” says Alex. “This has given me something to do, both this year and last year. It’s been hard to meet new people in most cases - I’m a really extroverted person, and I love talking to people - so this has been the best outlet for my social needs. If you like being part of a community, there’s no better way to get involved.”

Brian agrees that it’s been a good thing to do during Covid: “I feel like a better person for having done this job during the pandemic; it’s given me purpose and something to work towards. Overall, it has been a very positive experience - some days I genuinely forget this is a job.”

 

‘The best job I’ve ever had in my life’

While the student ambassadors are paid for their time, the role comes with the additional bonus of looking good on students’ CVs: it’s a great way to hone interpersonal, organisational and problem-solving skills, offers experience of leadership and teamwork, and is an important opportunity to work in a multicultural environment - hugely beneficial in a globalised world. Alex says that in his job hunt, the role has been a real conversation starter, showing an initiative to develop career skills and network as well as seeking out opportunities beyond his studies.

Alex is particularly passionate about the multicultural side of the role. As his building, Wellington Street Plaza, has a large Chinese community, he and his fellow student ambassadors have hosted a few events especially for Chinese students, to help them feel welcome - as well as setting up a group on WeChat. “Universities are great, beautiful, multicultural places to be, and you learn a lot from them,” he says. “You learn to accommodate all different experiences and life choices, which is really important.” 

As both students near the end of their courses, they reflect on their time as student ambassadors. Alex recalls a time when - prior to Covid - a party night in the common room didn’t go to plan: the DJ was an hour late and had forgotten to bring any cables when he did arrive. “He asked if he could use my phone, and downloaded a DJ app onto it - then spent two hours on my phone scratching records!” he laughs, “It was actually really good.”

“I absolutely will miss it when I graduate - it’s the best job I’ve ever had. People know who you are and ask how your day is - I’m going to miss that,” says Brian. “When you graduate, you won’t get a chance to do this again - so grab all the opportunities you can. You only regret the things in life you don’t do.”

 

Read more information about how the student ambassador scheme came about here, and more about our ‘Students Supporting Students’ pilot scheme here. If you need support this Mental Health Awareness Week, don't suffer in silence. The Mental Health Foundation has a list of resources and suggestions available here.

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Jen Steadman (she/her) is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.