Student Advocacy: Building on student support, voice and belonging in the LLC

University of Leeds campus

In the Lifelong Learning Centre, a new team of ‘Student Advocates’ has been recruited to support and signpost students throughout Semester one and ensure barriers to their experiences are heard whilst giving them the tools to overcome them. This involves facilitating positive experiences between students on non-traditional pathways in the new hybrid world of Higher Education in order to empower them to make the most of their academic journey.

The New Student Advocate Role

The last six months has been a whirlwind in Higher Education, for staff and students. Covid-19 has brought a whole array of new challenges, not least how to support learners when both staff and students are increasingly working remotely. Anxiety and isolation (perennial experiences for first-time campus learners) have become increasingly a widespread across different cohorts. The need for heightened homeworking and social distancing has amplified usual student worries, while producing new ones. In response to this tough context, the Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre has created a new team of Student Advocates.

At the core of our work is Student Engagement, to ensure those struggling to or not engaging with teaching have individualised and tailored support, signposting to relevant university services, and the regular offer of friendly advice.

We reinforce existing focus on boosting Student Success. On referral from Programme Managers, we’re supporting individual or groups of learners to progress in their studies and overcome barriers to their development as learners.

We are also here to reinforce the Partnership principle between students, the Lifelong Learning Centre, and the wider University. As conduits of real-time feedback, we play our part in hearing the student voice and facilitating co-created responses that ensure University life meets the changing needs of both students and staff.

We proactively facilitate Student-led Activity that helps students build their own learning community, through student-owned initiatives that can sustainably engage new and existing students beyond Semester One.

Students Purpose and Belonging in the Academic Journey

As Advocates we know that enhancing student voice in the present situation needs more than reflexive referral. Students, like staff, need to find purpose in their work, find belonging in their academic communities and find space to articulate their passions and ambitions. Above all, learners need to possess a sense of a ‘journey’.

Successful learning often involves students reminding themselves of ‘why’ they decided to engage in their preferred study path. This is particularly important when study expectations and practices are changing rapidly. For us, Advocacy involves helping students uncover an affirming story about their progress, their achievements, and their future. We are determined that no-one falls through the net, but more than that, we want to ensure that our University is a caring community that students can connect to wherever they are, and however they are studying.

As Advocates we seek to place referral services in this wider context of fostering a sense of coherence, empathy, and connection in difficult times. In our work, the encounter with a student is not so much an opportunity to fix a problem, but much more crucially a chance for the person to take a breath, be listened to, and explore their worries.

What Can We Do?

As Advocates we know we cannot fix everything. Yet, in working towards the core principles of the university’s partnership through easing pressures on both students and staff, we hope to make things just a little easier. A small cluster of activities, well designed and thoughtfully delivered, can make a big difference to student engagement and welfare.

For students, we offer individual 1-to-1s focused on their own experiences, help give them the confidence to find the information they need and reach out specifically to learners who feel lost, or disengaged midst a blizzard of emails. On a more programmatic level, we are identifying key areas of opportunity or concern for students and co-creating solutions with staff to fill those gaps in the students’ learning experiences. Our successful co-curricular ‘Study Afternoon’ is one example that responded to student voice to give Foundation Year students the chance to have a tour of campus’ open study spaces, reflect on learning techniques and their wellness at university, an event that we hope can build a sense of belonging for students on campus and at the University.

For staff, we are working with programme managers, APTs, teaching fellows and support teams to identify trends in concerns amongst cohorts and to co-create solutions to them. Likewise, we ease workload by following up with referred students and taking the time to work through specific concerns, ensuring staff have the time to focus their attention on their teaching, research and other responsibilities. Combined we hope to support the LLC to be the best learning environment it can be and to help students make the most of their studies.

Just before signing off we would like to offer a thank you to the welcome we have received from staff and students. While the above documents what we are striving to achieve we have naturally faced our own challenges in working remotely, understanding our new roles and in reaching and appropriately supporting the students-so we are a work in progress! But we look forward to continuing to explore ways that we can advocate and engage with staff and students.

In a recorded session, the team together share their reflections and experiences during their time in this role, and provide insights that underline the importance of never underestimating the difference we can make to build a sense of belonging and connectedness for our staff and students.

Student Advocates, the Lifelong Learning Centre

This blog is written by Ben Wood (B.J.Wood@leeds.ac.uk), Daniel Rosenzweig (D.A.Rosenzweig@leeds.ac.uk), Ginny Scholey (G.Scholey@leeds.ac.uk), Poppy Beacock (P.Beacock@leeds.ac.uk) and Sam Greet (S.J.Greet@leeds.ac.uk).

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