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Creating a community with ongoing, embedded student support & engagement

Andrea Collings

Andrea Collings

Feb 6, 2021

In part 2 of our Professor Marilyn Holness OBE partner profile interview, conducted at the beginning of this academic year, we learn of the wide ranging support and engagement initiatives provided by the entire University of Roehampton community.

Fostering a 'see it, suggest it' student-led culture, Professor Holness shares initiatives for new students starting their HE journey, right the way through to career support for final year students - and beyond to the newly employed!

Marilyn still_pic 2

What plans do you and your team have in place for preparing the new fresher's to engage with all of your wide-ranging support services as they join in this strange climate?

Like all other universities, we're moving to a blended offer. As far as our campus is concerned, we are campus ready, we're open, it's beautiful and we've got students there socially distancing, operating within the Covid rules. Obviously we're having to work in a different way but we have an onsite provision. And in parallel with that, we have an offer online. Our blended offer means that teaching and learning and support will be available in both settings, online and face to face. In terms of our support mechanisms, all of our support services are online, including wellbeing and counselling. Roehampton is a collegiate university, we have four colleges and they are all putting on events and activities to create a sense of welcome and belonging. We have a thriving chaplaincy that is running a set of activities, in addition to our student union who are carrying out meetings, activities and events online.  There is a lot going on across the social and academic provision.

In addition to this, we operate a proactive students support approach at Roehampton, where all our academic guidance tutors contact all of our continuing students to just check they are ok, that they've got what they need to support their learning, and to find out if they need anything. And now because it's induction time, we're contacting all of our new students to make sure that they've got everything they need to study in all circumstances, for example if we're going to remote learning or if we're going to be face to face, it is important to us that students understand what is needed. We're letting them know that we’re taking on board that it's a different way of working, and we're making sure that they know what academic and study support is available, what study support is available and they're signposted to it.

"We're letting students know that we’re taking on board that it's a different way of working."

We also try to make sure that students know about the services provided by our wellbeing teams and the support they offer as well as promoting the social side of things - because it is a learning experience going to university - but it's not just the learning. It's also the personal, the professional and the social, it's all of those things. We have a four pillar approach to academic guidance: it's about the academic work that you do first and foremost, and support for that; it's the support around wellbeing and making sure pastoral care is in place; it's about student life and the experiences that you have, you learn from others and are part of the community, where you can learn and just be, knowing that you belong; and then we have employability and careers making sure it’s included throughout their time with us, and not as an add on the end. This way our students learning and developing the transferable skills valued by employers alongside their studies, helping them achieve successful graduate outcomes. 

So we're ready, we've got things in place, all of which we're communicating through our proactive work with tutors talking to individual students about what studying in university in this strange climate is going to look like. There's a lot of work going on!

"You learn from others and are part of a community, where you learn and can just be, knowing that you belong."

Covid has made us rethink exactly what we do, and up our game. One of the things that our students have told us is that they have really, positively enjoyed the personal contact. Having somebody ring you and say, how's it going? Is it ok? Anything we can do? What would help? Let us know what the issues are? How's your IT, is it holding up? All these little things matter and tutors being able to feed back in real time student concerns, and us being able to respond and signpost in a timely manner has been absolutely phenomenal.

You talked previously about the work you are doing on the awarding gap between white students and ethnically diverse students. What other supportive initiatives do you have running? 

We're committed to working with students at partners and this approach drives the way we do things. For example, we set up a mentoring scheme for ethnically diverse students as a result of a student idea. What happens at Roehampton under my umbrella work of student engagement, is I say to students, if you see things that could be even better if - then remember, it's our university, so think about how we can enhance our university - come with solutions and ideas and we'll work with you to make it happen. The mentoring scheme came out of a series of events, beginning with an employability event we were running which had a networking 'mingling' slot at the end. A student came up to me and said "I don't know what to say. I don't know how to network". and we were astounded - we had taken it for granted that they would just go and talk to each other! So we said OK, we'll put on some sessions on networking, so we did.  Another student said the networking sessions were so good, it would be really helpful if we had more time with the contributors in a one-to-one scenario. So we said ok, let's make it happen. He went away and came back with the idea that we would have corporate mentors - people who had achieved in large organisations what our students were aspiring to, the JP Morgan's and Capgemini's. We scoped out a project involving a mixture of successful senior leaders, middle career and junior members of staff who were prepared to share in depth their career journeys and provided advice on how to navigate the corporate world, for a selected group of motivated and high achieving students.  the plan was, students would have six different hour long, one-to-one sessions with each person on an agreed topic, like 'Owning your individuality, developing your story and the importance of diversity in any organisation' or 'The City, how it works and making it in a corporate environment' alongside employability activities to build soft skills as well as recording and analysing their interview technique, psychometric testing, with a mentor to draw it all together. We helped the student arrange it, and it ran. 

It was supposed to be hosted at the corporate offices so the students would get a sense of going to Canary Wharf or The City and experience the learning from just being in these spaces. But because of lockdown we had to move the whole thing online. However this didn't stop it being successful for all the participants - mentors and mentee alike Success indicators can be seen in the increase in engagement by the mentees, all who have assumed roles within the university ranging from leading student societies for their peers, membership of university committee and taking up sabbatical roles with the Student Union. And the students have just flourished! They've just loved it. They've asked questions and shared things. They've been exposed to what's out there and what's possible. It's been inspiring! 

"if you see things that could be even better - then remember, it's our university, so think about how we can enhance our university - come with solutions and ideas, and we'll work with you to make it happen."

One of our summer graduates got a job that 1,200 people had applied for. We talked about what it was that she did to convince them to give the job to her - some of it she put down to her experiences on the programme but even with this success she still doubts that she belongs and will thrive in the environment. After 4 weeks in the job she wrote to me and said “Marilyn, I don't know how to do the 'small stuff'. They are talking about things I don't know about, what am I supposed to say? How much am I supposed to share?" and I am reminded that they're really frightened about things many of us take for granted, basic things like the office chit chat! She asked “do I tell them about me, because I'm black and everybody in the organisation is white?” and I said YES! You can share with them, think of a few things you are comfortable to share, not just things you have in common, but also things they can learn about from you. I realise then, the confidence needed to practice sharing parts of you with strangers in unfamiliar surroundings. This makes you realise how important it is to give our students these snippets of simple guidance about the stuff that is taken for granted. It beings home that a degree is not enough if students don't have the social and cultural capital that experiences like good mentoring and exposure to organisational understanding brings, then they may continue to struggle, limit their expectations and fail to realise their potential. If universities take students from ethnically diverse backgrounds then we have a responsibility to help them succeed, otherwise we are perpetuating ambitions and dreams that won't be realised. 

“She wrote to me and said “Marilyn, I don't know how to do the 'small stuff'. They are talking about things I don't know about, and what am I supposed to say? How much am I supposed to share?" and I am reminded that they're really frightened about things many of us take for granted."

And that's what I mean sometimes about education being a key to a door [read blog part 1]. Part of the university experience is giving people a taste of something. Or providing the space and opportunity to see and experience different things, a place to ask those stupid questions and be able to make mistakes and know that it's okay. It's safe. This is where you grow, this is where you can take a risk. This is where you become. That's what I mean about learning to be, and then you can start to take agency over your own experiences that is just so powerful, very powerful.

RAFA screengrab

Professor Holness is one of the academic staff on the RAFA2 Project team. 


You can read part 1 here and find out more about Professor Marilyn Holness, OBE and her boundless passion for education, charity work and  being a proud mum to son Super-Sam.


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