Creating Community: The Role of Student Ambassadors
Most people who have been to university can remember their first few days as freshers, often vividly. That heady feeling of independence, unfamiliar people and places, and early friendships quickly made in corridors and kitchens: rarely in our lives do we undergo such a fundamental upheaval as going away to university.
Social anxiety is especially prevalent among new students as our research has previously shown, and earlier this year we discovered that even the most confident applicants are likely to wonder whether they will really make friends at university. This year, those anxieties will take on a different aspect. How will I ever feel at home and make friends if we are all socially distancing?
Our Student Ambassador scheme, now in its fourth year, was set up to help new students to settle in and to foster a sense of community. Over its period of development the scheme has included many elements: welcoming students on arrival, hosting events, live and pre-recorded accommodation tours for students who can’t visit in person and, during the early weeks of the lockdown, running online events. We quickly learnt that, although every element had its use, we needed to focus on what was most valuable for students – and what was achievable for ambassadors who were working around their studies.
This year, as you might expect, we have had to put some of our plans for the scheme on hold. It has provided us with an opportunity to focus down on those things that our insight shows will really make a difference for students. We have also had to be creative about how we deliver, and of course ensure the safety and wellbeing of the ambassadors themselves.
This year’s ambassadors will focus their work in two areas: welcoming new students as they arrive, and providing a range of student-led online and socially distanced events.
Feeling welcome in your new home is always important and we’ve found that it can make a lot of difference to how students feel about their experience as a whole. This year, it’s also about reassurance and creating a sense of normality. New students no longer have a clear frame of reference for their experience, so creating a sense of positive connection when they first walk through the door is really important.
We haven’t needed to make any major changes to our ambassador recruitment process because we have previously run it online. To support induction of new ambassadors, our health and safety team helped us create a COVID-19 guidebook which complements the initial training which has now moved online. This training includes health and safety, active listening and guidance on creating and managing events. This year, of course, we will be training our ambassadors on running online events, drawing on the many lessons we learned in April and May this year.
We know that these events will be crucial in helping students form new connections and friendships. They will be able to socialise freely with their flatmates, and online with others in their building, but they will be missing out on opportunities to meet others through “little random events”, as one student described them. In our research earlier this year, we found that these events were more important than we had realised in helping students make friends in the early weeks of term.
In the first few weeks of term we will also be running a small peer support pilot that was originally due to run in March. Working closely with our student services team, we will select and train a small number of ambassadors who can listen to students who are having any problems settling in to student life.
These peer support ambassadors will, of course, be well trained and fully supported. They will work within a clear framework that allows them to escalate anything that goes beyond the usual homesickness or loneliness. This pilot is very timely. We expect that it will help address some of the emotional distress that may never turn into a fully blown mental health issue, but nonetheless affects quality of life and the overall student experience for an increasing number of new students. If successful, we will be looking at how it can be scaled up in a safe and sustainable way, to become part of our core offer to students.
Our ambassador scheme has come a long way over the last four years, and has never felt more relevant. It has been a privilege to have managed the scheme since the start, not only because of the impact it has on students but because of the drive and creativity of the ambassadors themselves. They inspire me every day, and have been an inspiration to my colleagues too, including our senior leadership team. Above all, they help transform our accommodation from a place to sleep into a real community.