A little help from their friends: Peer-based student support through lockdown

12 Nov 2020
By Jennifer Steadman, HE Comms Executive at Unite Students
Our latest student survey results are a snapshot of how students are feeling about the choices they’ve made so far in 2020/21 – and the choices they plan to make in January. The findings may surprise you; you can read them here.
In this post, we look at the findings that show the benefits of peer-to-peer support - something we’re already making the most of with our new initiative, Students Supporting Students.

Fellow students are vital to a student’s successful university experience. That might sound obvious, but – borne out by both our research and wider findings across the higher education sector – it bears repeating, particularly in light of current challenges.

In our COVID-19 student survey, students cited university friends and peers as having helped them most to transition to university life, even more so than parents. This has had a significant positive impact: despite the turbulence of the academic year so far, 72% of students surveyed agreed that they had transitioned well to university life – and a reassuring 85% said they were likely to return to their student accommodation in January.

But what of those who have struggled to adapt and make friends with stringent social limitations in place? Enter Students Supporting Students, our new peer-to-peer support programme with content developed with help from student mental health charity Student Minds.

Our trained student ambassadors are the heart of the scheme, which is currently in its pilot phase. The programme involves them presenting webinars to local students on six topics, from evergreen subjects such as settling into a new city and managing stress and anxiety, to more contemporary themes including loneliness and online learning motivation. New Realists, our 2019 insight report, revealed that students consider their university peers to be the most accurate source for information on student life – so it was crucial to work with students on delivery as well as development to ensure engagement and credibility. 

Sessions are interactive, with students able to ask questions of the ambassadors throughout; these are filtered to ensure that only appropriate and relevant questions are put forward. To ensure the student ambassadors are able to safely deliver the programme, they are trained on boundaries and how to escalate any concerns to the relevant services – as well as what welfare services and apps are available to students, so that these can be signposted during the sessions. All sessions are monitored by a member of our student services team.

While the student ambassadors are trained on webinar delivery and content in advance, they bring the subject matter to life with their own lived experiences and stories. Paula and Doreen, our student ambassadors in Birmingham, have been delivering the scheme in its pilot phase – and, as they’ve already gone through a lockdown in their accommodation, they’re full of ideas for staying well and keeping connected. 

Paula, a third year Medicine student at Aston University, advocates setting up chat groups with friends and housemates, playing games with them on House Party, and regular calls back home; all of which helped her during the first lockdown. Doreen – also in her third year at Aston, studying Business and Management – adds that establishing a daily routine helped to maintain her wellbeing.

With student accommodation currently serving as a home, study space, lecture hall and social hub, the content has a real focus on the role that accommodation plays in these topics; for example, how students can adapt their room to be an effective study space during lockdown.

Jenny Dalzell, Unite’s Student Services and Welfare Manager, says: “Students are spending more time than ever in their accommodation – and through the Students Supporting Students pilot, we are able to educate and inform students on wellbeing topics with a particular focus on student accommodation. We’re giving students a unique opportunity to engage, learn and take note of support that is available to them by combining content from Student Minds with genuine student experience.”

And there’s one more benefit to the model. By giving student ambassadors the opportunity to deliver the programme, they’re able to learn new skills and strategies for the future. Paula has learned how to present to an audience, and says that this experience has helped to build her confidence; Doreen adds: “The content is really useful, and I know how much it can help people – it’s something I feel proud to be a part of.”

Read more about our Student Survey findings here, and learn about the impact of student loneliness and how your institution can combat it here.

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Jen Steadman 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.