Two people in conversation

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Edinburgh Cares Mentoring Programme

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University of Edinburgh staff are mentoring care-experienced students and supporting their journey through higher education.

Not everyone gets the same opportunities in life and a variety of barriers can prevent someone’s journey through education. A University degree can be transformative, not only for individuals but in their impact on society more widely. Despite this only four per cent of care-experienced young people attend higher education after school in Scotland. At the University of Edinburgh the Widening Participation (WP) team works to address these inequalities in higher education.

One way the WP team looks to support these students once they’ve arrived at the University is through the Staff Mentor programme, Edinburgh Cares. The project pairs new, care-experienced students with a member of staff to help guide them through the higher education processes, celebrate their successes, and support them with any issues they may have adapting to life at university.

An invaluable experience

Dr Lauren Hall-Lew is a Reader in Linguistics and English Language, in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences. She has been a staff mentor since the scheme began in 2019: “I have always enjoyed mentoring students, and I am also a parent to two care-experienced children, so the idea of merging these two experiences was appealing.”

Lauren has found that it’s the personal connection and support offered by a mentor that is the most important: “Care-experienced students have highly varied experiences, but all arrive at the University with an empirical disadvantage. We have Student Counselling and Student Disability Services, but neither can provide the sustained, relationship-based support that a mentoring scheme can.”

The experience has shown Lauren another side to university life. She elaborates: “I’ve gotten to understand much more deeply what new students can find confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating, and this has been invaluable for my professional life.”

“I had not really appreciated all that a student might not know, and all that we assume that they know, and how wide that gap can especially be for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she continues. “Most of the undergraduate students who I get to know well are already in their fourth or maybe third year of study, and so I see them at their most settled and competent, rather than during the years when they’re trying to find their feet.”

Two people in conversation

So what has she taken away from the whole experience? Lauren shares more: “I’ve learned that students who attended state schools can feel like they are the only one, in a class of hundreds. And for students who have endured hardships that are unimaginable to their peers, they can feel even more isolated. I’ve learned so much from working with my mentee, and it’s made me a better Personal Tutor and lecturer. It’s been an absolute privilege to watch my mentee navigate all these challenges and continue to succeed. I’m really proud of them!”

Lauren urges fellow academic staff to think about getting involved too: “From the beginning, the Edinburgh Cares mentoring programme has been largely comprised of professional services staff, but I would personally encourage all academic staff members to consider it. If you especially enjoy the mentoring aspects of Personal Tutoring, then you will love being a mentor.”

A welcome challenge

Helen Ryall, Head of Student Experience in the Business School, also loves being a mentor. She joined the programme in September 2021 for a number of reasons: “I came from a school and a family where it really wasn’t usual or common to go to university so I didn’t have that background or expectation that it was something I would ever do. I imagine this is true of many students from a care-experienced background too so I felt I may have something to offer.

“From a professional perspective, I come across many students who need a helping hand from someone who just understands how university works and can guide them through the ups and downs of university life. It’s also been a while since I was a student so I felt that actually being alongside a care-experienced student on their journey through this key transition in their lives may help me too.”

For Helen, there are huge benefits to being a part of the project, both personal and professional: “My mentee and I got on really well straight away. She challenges me on so many levels that I have learnt a lot not only about the personal circumstances she has chosen to share with me, but also a desire to learn more about how best I and others can support her (and other students too).

“This can only be of benefit to me in my role and how I develop myself and my services to other students. My mentee has told me she doesn’t realise how far she has come on and settled in to university life until she talks to me and has time to reflect on her journey so far. I feel so proud of how well she is doing with her academic and social life and constantly amazed by how insightful she is.”

Two people in conversation

So how exactly has the experience allowed Helen to develop her professional skills? As Head of Student Experience, many of them are already part of her daily role, but there’s still plenty of lessons to be learnt. She explains more: “What this role has done has helped me draw on learning from many years ago which has surprised me! At one point recently my mentee was in a dilemma about what to do for Christmas and I drew on some past learning that helped her come to the right decision for her without me telling her what she should do.”

“More significantly I have also increased my knowledge, particularly around the challenges a young care-experienced adult may face when they come to university and also the trauma they may now only feel able to address,” Helen continues. “The WP team is brilliant at providing us with ongoing training and information in this area, as well as being a fantastic ear over the phone when feeling stuck. At times I have felt really challenged in this role but I have never felt alone.”

Ultimately, Helen feels the experience has brought benefits to both her professional, and personal life: “Being a mentor for a care-experienced student can definitely bring an additional dimension to your work and your life. If you have a small amount of time – only one hour per fortnight or thereabouts – are good at listening and are open to a new challenge – then definitely go for it. At times it may not be easy, but what good things worth doing are?”