The transition from school to university can be daunting, exciting and overwhelming – and that’s just for the parents.
Students are often eager to experience this new world of opportunity and freedom filled with the possibility to start afresh, make new friends and find their purpose in life. For some students however, the realities of university do not live up to their expectation and instead of experiencing “the best time of their lives” they end up feeling isolated, lonely and anxious, questioning their worth and wondering what they’ve done wrong.
Only the lonely
Earlier this year, Wonkhe published research highlighting the startling figures around student loneliness, friendship and mental health at university. So much of a students’ experience centres on connecting with people and establishing supportive networks, but where does the responsibility for this lie? In the past, universities would have considered this to be a students’ responsibility or something that happens organically over time. However, times have changed and there is no denying that technology has altered the way students learn, connect and view both themselves and the world they live in.
As at many universities, at the University of Liverpool we have established a new team dedicated to support students with transitioning, belonging, wellbeing and success. The Student Success team understand that sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference and recognise the importance of creating opportunities for students to make connections, navigate their new landscape and feel in control.
These themes are not new; there are plenty of professional services across universities doing a brilliant job in supporting students around these issues, it’s just that sometimes messages are lost, not executed in the most effective way or far too generic. Success teams package key messages and deliver them in an engaging, inspiring and simplified manner via a range of interventions and events, ensuring student experience is at the heart of everything.
Here we’ve introduced a new approach to Welcome Week with an aim to foster a strong sense of community on campus with themed days including “Switched On”, “Happy, Healthy You”, and “Good Global Citizen”. We have connected with our students on a more personalised level, by running tailored events such as our Commuter Student Welcome, which attracted 160 students and included tours of campus, talks from existing students and opportunities to connect with one another.
Early inventions like this go a long way to improving retention rates and student satisfaction, however we know that one-off events/initiatives aren’t enough, we need to keep students engaged throughout their entire course and that is why this year we have introduced the year-long “Liverpool Welcome” which provides a platform to celebrate key dates in the calendar such as international festivals to reduce homesickness or city-wide events to instil a deep-rooted sense of belonging.
Reducing isolation and improving a sense of belonging is just the tip of the iceberg, we must also focus on anxieties related to the pursuit of excellence; the pressure of “winning the race” and remaining at the top of their game. Maintaining a run of successes when entering a new playing field is challenging and students can adopt a feeling of not being “good enough” as they see university as a win or lose gamble rather than an adventure with twists and turns, successes and failures.
Supporting students with their psychological needs is essential to ensure they achieve self-actualisation. The rise of perfectionism has paved the way for a fear of failure and an increasing number of students admit to suffering from imposter syndrome, particularly in the early days of higher education. This is heightened for students who have overcome barriers to secure a place at university, leaving them feeling inadequate and consumed by self-doubt.
These feelings can be detrimental to good mental and physical health, so it is important to support students with strategies to cope. Sharing worries with others is a way for students to counter negative thoughts with positive suggestions around their strengths and opportunities. Peer Mentors can support students in removing the isolation that is common with imposter syndrome and highlight the prevalence of these feelings amongst the student population.
According to Student Minds “Peer support programmes can offer an efficient and effective way of supporting students and breaking down the isolation met by many new students.” This year we have recruited more Peer Mentors than ever-before as part our new Road to Success framework, sitting alongside Academic Advisors and Student Experience Teams.
This framework has been developed to provide greater clarity to students over who can support them on their student journey. Essential to this framework, is the fourth pillar; the student in the “driving seat” responsible for their own success and failures. Developing the mental strength of students is central to this framework, developing resilience and encouraging a growth mindset.
Supporting from the sidelines
So, how do we best support our students in eliminating these barriers and recognizing their potential? The “What Works Student Retention & Success” report (Thomas et al.) highlights the need to draw on a wide range of expertise and spheres of influence to deliver a university wide-collaborative approach to student success and we agree.
Student Success teams can act as cultivators of campus networks, empowering teams across campus and working collaboratively to provide a holistic approach to student success. Empowering students to support each other and share experience instills a sense of community that is both inclusive and accessible, creating a clear path to progress, develop and ultimately succeed in whatever direction the student wishes to take. Focusing more on developmental focused narratives as opposed to a more finite outcome ensures students invest as much in the journey as they do the desired destination.
There are so many exciting possibilities and paths to explore and we should support our students to be curious, embrace challenges and build lasting memories.