SPS Outreach Network for Access/Adult Returner Students

End of Academic Year Lunch at SPS for Access/Adult Returner Student
Image credit: Zohra O’Doherty: End of Academic Year Lunch at SPS for Access/Adult Returner Student

In this post, Zohra O’Doherty spotlights a Student Partnership Agreement (SPA)↗️ funded collaborative project that offers additional support and outreach to mature students who are most often at risk of feeling lonely and isolated at the University. Zohra is a Project Manager and Business Analyst on Learning, Teaching and Web projects. This post belongs to the Hot topic series: Student Partnership Agreement 2023↗️.

It goes without saying that The University of Edinburgh’s graduating class of 2023 found themselves to be part of a cohort of students that over the years were faced with a set of challenges collectively unlike anything else in recent memory. From an unprecedented global pandemic, to the war in Europe, an ongoing climate emergency, cost of living crisis and return of high inflation, to annual industrial action in the UK HE sector culminating in a lengthy marking and assessment boycott, the circumstances in which this cohort of students completed their studies have been nothing short of remarkable. However, such exceptional events did not only constitute the day-to-day challenges faced by the class of 2023 and their peers. Zooming into a minority group of students at the School of Social and Political Science↗️ (SPS), this blog post will discuss how an IAD Student Partnership Agreement (SPA)↗️ funded project was born with the hope of offering additional support and outreach to mature students most often at risk of feeling lonely and isolated at the University.

The SPS Outreach Network for Access/Adult Returner Students is a collaborative project that began in the summer of 2022 between the Head of Student Support and Enhancement at SPS and the student Undergraduate School Rep for SPS, with input from a member of the Social Policy faculty at SPS. The founding aim of the project was to offer additional support for mature students coming into the School via Widening Participation routes such as the University’s Access Programme↗️ or Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP)↗️. The reason for this was that feedback from some such students reported feelings of isolation once entering the main student body at the University – which of course was exacerbated for many during the pandemic. Many of this student group live at home, with pre-existing family or work commitments, and it can be hard to identify other students who may be similarly placed.

“From the student support perspective, we know that many of our adult returner students juggle so much while studying, and face additional challenges from commuting, work/family commitments and so on. This project was a great way to work with students themselves to build a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation for this specific cohort within our School.” – Catriona Elder, Head of Student Support and Enhancement at SPS

In order to collaboratively develop a resilient community of mature students across years and across SPS, we piloted the project with our first lunchtime get-together at the Chrystal Macmillan Building in September 2022, where we filled a conference room and received great initial feedback from the attendees, who were happy to meet new and old faces from the SPS Access/Adult Returner Students community. Some students from other CAHSS schools also joined if they attended with peers, and they were also welcomed, especially students on joint programmes across schools, who can sometimes feel even more isolated due to their specific student profile. Thanks to the IAD SPA funding, we were able to make this lunchtime get-together a monthly event, providing tea/coffee and snacks at future events.

“I attended the monthly meetups for Access students in my final year at the University, organised at SPS. They were a refreshing change from a lengthy time of social isolation. As a student with children and a job, I couldn’t always attend, so I would say that a weekly meeting would be better, in the same place each time. If I missed a meetup, sometimes I would go several weeks with no meaningful connections in my day-to-day interactions at the School.” – Access/Adult Returner Student at SPS

We also ended up collaborating with the Student Development Office at SPS to organise an end of semester 2 lunch in May 2023 for all SPS Access/Adult Returner students, where additionally we had the opportunity to gift attendees SPS-branded hoodies as a token to mark the end of a particularly challenging academic year.

We believe this project has the longevity to be carried forward in future years, and has the potential to make an incredibly positive impact on a student group often at risk of discontinuing or delaying their studies due to their unique student profile and life commitments outside of the University. The project focused on the following SPA key priorities for 2022-23:

  • Community, wellbeing and supporting transitions
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion

Mature students are a minority group at the University, many coming from Access/SWAP backgrounds, and falling within the University’s Widening Participation strategy. Many mature students are also student parents, student carers, students with teaching and learning adjustments, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Hence, inclusivity was paramount in this project’s approach. Moving forward, the project could be expanded to include, for example:

  • More substantial mid-year outreach/social events, as winter time can be particularly lonely and isolating in Edinburgh;
  • Collaborations with the Careers Service on events tailored to mature students returning to the workforce after university, as this particular concern is shared by many of the student group.

Reflecting back on the SPS Outreach Network for Access/Adult Returner Students project, it is important to consider lessons learnt ahead of the next academic year. Student engagement with the project was a lot higher at the start of semester 1, with very low dips during assessment periods. It is important to consider student feedback in this case, to ensure we can better support the cohort in future endeavours.

“I think in general the intention of supporting students is strong in SPS, but the delivery doesn’t always match. The chosen mode of communication – email – does not land with many of the intended audience. There is much evidence to suggest that many students do not thoroughly check emails and could easily miss such invitations if they don’t ‘jump out at you’. A posted letter with a semester of dates pre-planned and promoted in CMB (café, washrooms, digital screens, whiteboard) would help people know where to go, and when.” – Access/Adult Returner Student at SPS

Ultimately, time spent on this project has only amplified the importance of supporting staff and students to collaboratively develop and enhance resilient communities that promote a sense of wellbeing, belonging, and mattering at the University.

Many thanks to the IAD Student Partnership Agreement for funding our inaugural Outreach Network for Access/Adult Returner Students at SPS.

Photograph of the authorZohra O’Doherty

Prior to graduating from The University of Edinburgh as a mature student in 2023 after completing an MA (Hons) in Social Policy and Sociology, Zohra O’Doherty returned to higher education via the University’s Access Programme in 2019. Passionate about lifelong learning, innovative digital skills and empowering others, Zohra currently works for the University as a Project Manager and Business Analyst on Learning, Teaching and Web projects.

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