During Welcome and Induction week (WIW), our programme (like most others) aims to support the incoming students to get to know the programme, university, us and each other; to feel like they are settling in, and recognise that most of their concerns and questions are shared by their peers.
Day two, WIW: One of the activities in which our new cohort were asked to participate was a sharing of their hopes and fears for/from their time at university. Two colleagues facilitated the discussions and scaffolded them into 7 topic start-points of: Moving away from home; Money; Academic Skills; Social; Graduation & Career; Wellbeing; Independent living.
Day three, WIW: I spent personal academic tutor (PAT) time with the group, and part of what we explored together was what sorts of social pressures or attitudes might help or hinder them in their first term at university; and how they might manage these pressures. The scope of the pressures the students might have included within this activity was left completely open (although may have been influenced by the topic start-points scaffolded in the previous day’s task).
Hopes and Fears:
9 themes emerged across the topic start-points, with the most prominent being peer interaction. There was a speed element/pressure to be “clicking with people straight away” and already (on day two) “finding people to live with next year”. This pressure to quickly find those life-long university friends coincided unhelpfully with the inter-personal challenges of getting used to many others’ habits in close proximity, “struggling with the amount of people in a flat” (for those living in halls), whilst those not in halls worried they were not meeting people as a result. Following this up in 1-2-1 tutorials showed this to be a particular concern for younger students living locally but at home, who felt that much of the SU/Freshers event communication was through flyers delivered to halls and so they missed out. Then there was pressure to keep contact with friends from home whilst investing time and effort in making new university friends. The significance of positive peer relationships, and the pressure to achieve these (both to avoid and help manage social animosity or awkwardness, and to support academically in group assignments) came through clearly and consistently.
There was only one explicit reference to home sickness at this early point; possibly temporarily eclipsed by the focus on the immediate context in that ‘friendship rush’. However, this theme would emerge more clearly as time went on.
Finance, though not a major theme, did emerge in a message that it was uncertainty relating to finance that was causing the greatest fear – what will it be like if I run out of money, or can’t budget and spend “on unnecessary things”. There was a clear link here to the development of practical organisational skills – such as time/task management, where students expressed concerns they might not remember to buy essentials or manage the logistics of cooking, washing and travel. Under this 4th theme, also sat concerns about how complicated it might be to register with a new doctor (transfer records, continue medication) and the need to balance time between work/life and study.
Alongside developing and drawing on these practical organisational skills, the 5th theme was of developing academic skills – specifics like referencing or essay writing. Often, expression of fear relating to this theme was linked to returning to study after a year or more at home/in the workplace.
There were overlaps across these themes, and one of the clearest was between concerns relating to academic skills, and expressions of lack of self confidence. Students expressed fear of “not understanding the assignments” or having no background of study in similar subject areas. “Actually last[ing] the three years” was expressed as an ambitious goal, alongside concerns of inability to deal with unfamiliar situations.
This goal of lasting the three years – ie. graduating – also sits in the 7th theme of achieving objectives. Comments included the importance of “getting the grade you want” and getting a job – specifically, being able to go straight from university to a job. Potentially, a sub-theme of this focus on objectives, was about discovering what those post-university objectives might actually be as a result of attending university and completing the course. ie. “knowing what I want to do in 3 years” and where I want to work and live. These framed the university experience as both an instrumental means to a pre-existing goal, and as an opportunity for discovery to explore and then work to achieve an end goal.
Alongside peer interaction, and the development of practical organisational skills, Wellbeing was an area of multiple fears. Specifically, mental health in the context of who would be there for them if they struggled with their mental health and how might this impact on their interaction with lecturers (eg “How well do lecturers work with students with mental health”). Wellbeing concerns were possibly the greatest in relation to Self Care – how would they handle alcohol consumption, look after themselves when they were ill, eat well, sleep enough. There was a clear link between these fears and the the need to develop practical organisational skills (theme 4), specifically an ability to cook, wash clothes and know what to buy.
Anticipated term one pressures and how to handle them:
Peer interaction was reinforced in this day three activity as an area of pressure. Students felt pressure to socialise, and that they needed to achieve the goal of “fitting in connecting with others” as an outcome of this socialisation. “Fitting in” was a repeated phrase, and also raised in the context of getting along with flatmates. This connected to Well Being in the context of Self Care, where students felt “pressure to drink with mates” and “to go out every night especially at Freshers” (yet they had expressed, the previous day, concern that they slept enough and did not drink so much they became unwell).
Pressures indicating a need for developed practical and organisational skills were numerous, including time management (“handing in assignments whilst balancing other things” / “balancing a social life with class and assignments”, “getting to lectures on time”) as well as the need to budget and manage their money. In these discussions, pressures to protect Finance and Self Care (WellBeing) seemed juxtaposed against peer interaction goals of fitting in and couched in an awareness of the need to balance these potentially conflicting priorities.
A new theme, that was a strongly felt pressure but had not emerged as a fear in the previous day’s activity, was that of expectations of success. These often stemmed from family, in perceived “pressure from family to do well” and “to get top grades”. Part of the pressure for top grades and “completion within time” was “[be]cause of the money being spent to go here” and fear of the alternatives “from my parents, that I won’t go/graduate uni and have a decent job after”. There were mentions of being “first in family to go to uni” and the need to make “family proud – not letting them down”. This was more than the achieving objectives theme of day two, since it had that key element of external pressure which has relevance for study motivation.
Students discussed how they might manage these pressures. The most significant response related to drawing on and developing their own skills (organisational and interpersonal) such that “fitting in” did not have to mean losing sight of “activities that suit you” or “groups you feel comfortable in”. The clear instruction “don’t give in to peer pressure say NO! It’s ok 🙂 ” was offered, as well as practical suggestions to “Plan classwork/assignments ahead of time so you know when you’re free”, to “prioritise”, be well organised and manage time and money through planning, leaving “plenty of time to spare”.
In order to help in this skill development, it was suggested support be drawn from friends and family, and from the university. This could be explicit – “ask parents for advice as to how they budget. Ask a university advice team”; “speak to student support”. Or that support could come from ongoing contact and reminders of home, such as “Facetime the family, stick pictures on the wall”, “Don’t lose contact with the people you love” – their “support for the whole uni experience makes me keep working hard for it”.
Fast forward to week 11 of term, when one of three prompts students discussed in small groups was this:
Group consensus was that the toughest challenges most often related to Wellbeing. Specifically, there being a long wait for limited doctors’ appointments, as well as a “really long waiting list for mental health support at uni.” They expressed “anxiety around having to change doctors” and then when they had been able to see a doctor and received a prescription, because of the financial costs, they were “less likely to get medicine”. So, when they were ill, this was more challenging already because they were away from home and in addition to that, they were without basic medicines that might help them manage their illness, that might have been available at home.
The self care element of wellbeing was flagged as a tough challenge to achieve, when balancing “student nights – enticing events – cheap alcohol” against “lack of sleep”. Responses continued to recognise how tough “being independent” is, and how poor self care led to worse wellbeing (eg. “Poor diet = poor health”).
There were suggestions for how students might get through particularly tough challenges that related to Wellbeing: Drawing on support from home – “Family support” (and actually going home and spending more time there) – and from university – “Residential life” and “Protection from Security” were seen as positives to enable continuation. Of these support sources, residential life was the one most often reiterated. “Town centre being a 5 min walk” was also seen as a possible support strategy to combat these challenges. This is interesting in that two of these strategies require physically leaving the university, which may have implications for attendance.
Closely following Wellbeing as the area in which the toughest challenges might be experienced, were challenges where sound practical and organisational skills were necessary. “Balancing work and Uni” and “Finance and budgeting” were most often reiterated as particularly tough challenges. Logistical challenges were also hard-felt, with “parking” the other most reiterated challenge hindering commuting students. Other than “Family Support”, none of the other support strategies students had identified at that point seemed to particularly apply to this area of challenge.
The third and final area of toughest challenge related to peer interaction – in “maintaining relationships” back home and “making friends” at university. However, although this might be the area of most pressing fear during WIW, by week 11 it was significantly overshadowed by the challenges of Wellbeing and financial/time management. It is not clear whether this means that friendships have been consolidated by week 11 such that this initial fear has been mostly overcome, or whether the challenges of Wellbeing and financial/time management have increased and their impact become more sorely felt, or a combination of the two.
Finally (as this blog post is become encyclopedic), only one suggestion was made as to what more universities could do to support students when they face particularly tough challenges: “Provide more mental health counsellors”.
These themes were the basis for discussion at team meetings throughout block one, and also used as ‘conversation starters’ in 1-2-1 PAT tutorials. Every student in the cohort had at least two 1-2-1 PAT tutorials prior to the Winter term break.