Creating Community: The Role of Student Ambassadors

21 Aug 2020
By Phil Francis, Service Engagement Lead at Unite Students

Note: This post has been updated in May 2021 to reflect priorities of the ambassador scheme for the coming summer/autumn.

What is a student ambassador, and why did Unite Students set up a student ambassador scheme? How does a student ambassador operate in a socially distanced world? Phil Francis tells you all you need to know about the Unite Students student ambassador scheme and how it's adapted to current circumstances.

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, like last year, those anxieties will continue to take on very different aspects. How will I ever feel at home and make friends if we are all socially distancing?

Our Student Ambassador scheme, now in its fifth 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’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 which will hopefully become more physical events as time goes on. 

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 throughout the last 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, and we aim to open up more of our face to face events in line with government guidance and our working safely Covid 19 policies over time. These will develop and will be crucial as we welcome our students in September 2021.  

Our ambassador scheme has come a long way over the last five years, and has never felt more relevant. It has provided our students with peer to peer support through a global pandemic and we can build on the successes of 2020 to make 2021 even better. 

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Phil Francis has worked at Unite Students for almost 10 years, helping to create the Student Ambassador programme in 2016 and using student insight to refine and hone it hereafter.