Students transition through, not just into, university

There's a lot of focus on smoothing the transition into university - but what about how students make it through their experience? David Woolley and Jon Down describe the journey

David Woolley is Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University (NTU)

Jon Down is Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes

When the Princess of Wales visited NTU back in the autumn, she participated in a new starter “Welcome Workshop.”

Co-designed and co-delivered with student mentors – and using the Grit approach – these sessions encourage new students to share experiences and expectations, to build confidence, proactively manage their wellbeing and raise awareness of the wide range of support networks available to them.

And it was in the workshop that we found out how Kate began her journey from undergrad to future Queen, took up photography at university and found the community and “sense of belonging” that John Blake recently noted as being relevant to many elements of the OfS Equality of Opportunity Register.

Welcome Workshops are a central part of NTU’s programme of co-curricular events for new students. This programme supports students’ physical, emotional, and academic transition into university.

Transition plays an important part in shaping overall outcomes, particularly for students from under-represented backgrounds who have often described new educational spaces as alien and hostile. Transition is the starting point in developing so many of the needs that student success is built upon.

Welcome one, welcome all

Transitions are important – but designing an effective transition programme is a challenge, particularly for today’s more diverse cohort.

There are new types of student with very different lived experiences and very different expectations about what they want out of their relationship with university.

  • For student parents belonging may be about family, the relationship with university more akin to the workplace
  • For commuter students it can be a negotiation around the benefits and losses of travelling for several hours a day, operating on a timetable removed from the majority of their fellow students
  • First in family students may have no concrete expectations, others entirely focused on being part of discrete networks as they take the first steps along a well-trodden professional career path
  • For students of colour it might be the quest for an identity and their place in a predominantly white space.

But life in a 21st century university is, more often than not, predicated on systems and processes designed for the late 20th century. Institutions are organised around the campus, rooted in the assumption of a smaller, compact population, or the hall of residence model, both of which make building social connection more straightforward.

This traditional, one size fits all model of transition is never going to work for the diverse student body of the mid-21st century. Questions of “transition from what” and “transition to what?” will have a myriad of answers and notions of belonging are no longer uniform.

So how do we address this? It might be tempting to create a transition programme for every agenda, each student demographic but, given the complex web of intersectionalities, students will quickly become overwhelmed with the amount of stuff they have to do – and this before we add service children, young carers, prisoners and Jewish students to the OfS Risk Register. The resource demand on universities would be unsustainable.

The student mentor

One approach to this has been described both by Wonkhe’s Jim Dickinson and Livia Scott from their tours of Europe.

Here universities partner with students (student tutors) and their SUs on more bespoke ways of supporting new students through the transition into university to find a sense of belonging.

There are pockets of this activity in the UK too. At NTU every first-year student has a 2nd or 3rd year mentor, a guide and “source of inspiration” for how they can make their study time more relevant and how they can make the most of their time as a student both inside and outside of the university.

Even though this approach appears to have been successful in Europe and at NTU (where 97 per cent of students are aware of this support), we should be realistic about how much we can expect a student mentor to “help you explore your identity and motivations”.

There are challenges around inconsistent experience and we must recognise, too, that the mentor/first year will necessarily, to some degree, be a hierarchical relationship. As in all support, there is the temptation for mentors going straight into “fixing mode”, trying to always give advice or take action on behalf of their mentee – that urge to “do something” – instead of empowering and creating agency.

In some countries across Europe, the “student tutor” is much more focussed on building student community – helping students understand how to support each other – than the word “mentor” may imply, especially in a UK context.

And what happens when the relationship doesn’t work? A mentor may feel uncomfortable discussing personal issues with mentee with very different lived experience; mentees might prefer a mentor from the same background as them, others may want someone from a different background. It is not unreasonable to expect mentors to shy away from or skirt around difficult conversations.

So, while this clearly has a role to play, what else should we be thinking about?

Beyond welcome

We have written elsewhere about how belonging is a process, not a state, how identity, particularly through a university career, can be very fluid (not least because of the nebulous meaning of the term belonging).

If we think of the university experience as a kind of all-encompassing change programme, then we can look at the idea of “transitions” in a different way: the transition from first to second year, from undergraduate to postgraduate, from finalist to job seeker. At each stage the answers to the questions, who am I?; how do I fit in?; who will I become? will necessitate different responses.

This extends the notion of student transition well beyond new students. NTU has extended its new starter Welcome period and reduced the number of activities but seen an increase in student participation.

It has also successfully trialled an extended induction – a welcome programme for returning students and Welcome Workshops with postgraduate students thus giving a transition programme across the student lifecycle.

We begin, then, to think beyond students’ transition to university, but about students transitioning through university – it’s about a university rethinking what it means for all their students to belong, and for the sector it is about acknowledging where the widening participation agenda has taken us.

So, when the Princess of Wales next visits NTU we can quiz her about the transitions she made on what must have been an unexpected journey from Art History student to senior member of the Royal Family.

We can ask her about the staging posts, the blind alleys and the dead ends, about the breakthroughs, the moments of realisation and the key people who supported her along the way. And maybe we’ll find that her journey hasn’t been so unusual after all.

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