Caring for our community: a new way to support students

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The coronavirus pandemic revealed the importance of community and belonging within universities but long before Covid-19 threw a spotlight on this, the School of Economics was tackling the challenge with the appointment of a Student Welfare Manager. Bulletin speaks to Lorna Quickfall about her new role.

In 2018 the School of Economics was faced with a problem; the community reported feeling a lack of belonging and connection within the School. Their answer? A dedicated role to listen and support both students and staff in overcoming the many challenges that come with the journey through higher education.

Managing student support

Lorna joined the University in 2019 and works across key areas such as learning and teaching, student support and student experience, as well as working alongside those in central services like Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) and the Wellbeing Team.

Lorna explains that although student welfare is her, and the School’s, main concern, the role was created in response to a number of factors. Building a sense of community within the School was just one of several wellbeing areas that needed focus. Lorna reports that the School had noticed: “a lack of connection to the large cohort of students ‘in the middle’ – those who are not presenting with a severity of difficulties warranting counselling or other central university services, or those who are engaged and enjoying their studies.

Lorna’s role involves guiding students as they navigate the world of higher education, as well as leading on new initiatives to safeguard and enhance student wellbeing within the School. She explains: “I work with students who are experiencing barriers to success and difficult times, through coaching or one-off conversations; and support my academic and professional services colleagues with difficult situations around students. I coordinate named contacts and vulnerable students and students of concern for the school.”

Lorna’s background is in education and mental health. When working as a biology teacher, she began to specialise in helping students who were struggling with their education and progression.

“I am not a clinician,” Lorna is keen to stress. “I am an educationalist, and specialise in helping individuals explore how they can achieve their education goals while going through difficult times.

“There is no ‘good’ time to study – the pandemic has certainly shown us that – and a large part of education is working out how to achieve when your environment, physical or mental, is less than ideal.”

Talking it through

Lorna’s first focus was to identify and help those students ‘in the middle’. She began to offer coaching, available to all students in the School. These sessions offer students an opportunity to talk through their immediate concerns and problems, and help them find a way to fix them.

Between September 2020 and March 2021, Lorna ran 160 planned sessions with 52 students. She explains the format in more detail: “We explore strategies to help them achieve their goals and meet fortnightly to review over time. The process really teaches students the power of reflection and target setting, and the protectiveness that develops when students realise they have utilised their own skills to achieve their targets.”

Anonymous feedback from the sessions suggests they have made a real impact on the students with individuals reporting that they can now balance university work and other commitments ‘far more effectively than I could before’ and that they gained ‘valuable insights’ into how their own thoughts and feelings are perfectly normal. Many reported ‘my mental health is improving.’

The coaching is just one of several projects that Lorna has set up. She has also implemented a student review process, which encourages the School to work together to identify and support vulnerable students, and Economic Clans, which is a peer support scheme that allows volunteers at the end of their University journey to support those who are just at the beginning of their own.

A symbiotic community

It’s not just the students in the School that have been benefitting from Lorna’s expertise. She has also been working closely with her colleagues to make sure they feel supported in helping their students. Lorna elaborates: “I have been working closely with the student support office, senior personal tutor and teaching & undergraduate services manager on a new system of communication and recording around our students of concern.

“This is working really well,” she continues. “All staff report feeling much more confident in terms of knowing what is going on with students.” Increasingly, the School is already aware of individual students’ situations when they receive the information from the Extensions and Special Circumstances team.

Working closely with personal tutors, Lorna has been able to offer advice and guidance for situations with their own students: “Sometimes the student will come to me for a block of coaching, and sometimes the personal tutor needs an experienced colleague as a sounding board so they can confidently help the student themselves.”

For Lorna this 360-degree approach is the only way to implement the culture change desired by the School: “We are a symbiotic community. The health and wellbeing of one directly impacts on the other. The students are here to learn, and the feeling of belonging must run through all aspects of their university life, especially in the classroom. It cannot be something that is tagged on after curricular content.

“Belonging is equally important to staff; you must feel cared for in order to care for others. Staff who ‘belong’ will enfold students into that sense of belonging and community.”

Creating collaborations

Projects like these are only the beginning. Lorna is also working with the Chaplaincy and other Schools to create and implement more initiatives to promote community and safeguard student wellbeing.

She is keen to continue and build on the work she’s already done to ensure a strong sense of belonging throughout our huge institution: “I want our student and staff community to be vibrant and dense with all aspects of university life, from emailing a lecturer with a question through to graduation celebrations to be a smooth and fulfilling part of all our stories.”

Photography: GettyImages