Two students walk down the steps of the School of Economics

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Enhancing wellbeing, building community

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The coronavirus pandemic revealed the importance of community and belonging within higher education institutions but long before Covid-19 threw a spotlight on this, the University’s School of Economics was tackling the challenge with the appointment of a Student Welfare Manager.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed the importance of community and belonging within higher education institutions but long before Covid-19 threw a spotlight on this, the University’s School of Economics was tackling the challenge with the appointment of a Student Welfare Manager.

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 students and staff in overcoming the many challenges that come with the journey through higher education.

Managing student support

Two students walk down the steps of the School of Economics

As Manager of Student Welfare, Lorna Quickfall oversees just that. Bringing together key areas such as learning and teaching, student support and student experience, as well as working alongside colleagues in central University services.

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. 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 contact and vulnerable students and students of concern for the school.”

Lorna’s background is in education and mental health. When working as a secondary biology teacher, she began to specialise in helping students who were struggling with their education and progression. Before coming to the University, she had been the Head Teacher of a Tier 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) inpatient unit for more than 10 years.

“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 sessions, available to all students in the School. Using the CLEAR model –Contracting, Listening, Exploring, Action, Review – Lorna has been able to offer students an opportunity to talk through their immediate concerns and problems, and help them find a way to fix them.

A young adult sits facing an adult and she is smiling

Between September 2020 and March 2021, Lorna had 160 planned sessions with 52 students. She explains the format in more detail: “Students talk through what is going on for them and what they would like to achieve. 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. They often feedback on how helpful it is to be accountable to someone who is not themselves or a lecturer.”

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.’

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 our student support office, senior personal tutors and our teaching and 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 information from the University’s 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.”

A close up of two sets of hands over notebooks. One set is helping the other learn something.

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.”

Breaking barriers

The coronavirus pandemic added challenges to Lorna’s work. It has been incredibly tough for staff and students and Lorna has seen exactly what you’d expect under these conditions: “increased isolation and uncertainty have been very corrosive for the physical and mental health of our students and staff. It is difficult but so necessary to be here for students who are struggling, especially international students living alone who have not had the opportunity to create any social links in Edinburgh. Over time though I see adaptation and a motivation to consciously develop new and helpful routines.”

Lorna says there were also a few surprises: “What I have also seen is tremendous pragmatism and resilience. Vulnerable students that I have worked with in the long term and might have worried about, report shock at the situation but also an acceptance, and reflection of ‘what had they been worried about before’?

“Some report a new sense of perspective, of adapting and developing routines to cope in a very reductionist situation, that will help them going forward into their lives.”

For Lorna, putting students front and centre is ultimately what will make the biggest difference. Reminding yourself how they are feeling is imperative: “It is unfair to blame students for lack of ability if we as an institution have practices that are unhelpful for the contemporary student. In such an information-rich society, it can be tempting to think ‘but they should know that!’. Unfortunately, our students are studying in a forest with an unthinkable number of trees.

“That is why a critically reflective conversation with an informed individual is vital in assisting students both to learn and develop on a personal level, and also on a practical level to help them navigate more smoothly in the metaphoric forest. If something is in their way, what can we as educators and facilitators do to help that individual?”

Lorna is keen to stress that it’s not about telling students what to do – it’s about giving them the space and the tools to figure things out for themselves: “I love that the students I work with may have many different challenges, some absolutely huge, but that ultimately through the kind of work I do they are empowered in themselves to use or develop their own skills and agency to overcome their barriers, or carry them with more ease. It is great to be part of an organisation that is reflective, creative and forward thinking on behalf of its students.”

Creating collaborations

Lorna is working with other teams across the University to share her expertise and what she’s learnt so far in her role. A particular highlight was working with the University’s Chaplaincy team on a project called ‘Am I the Only One?’

“It developed out of research conducted around a sense of belonging, in which isolation emerged as an overarching theme. It was obvious from this research, and also the kinds of conversations that my colleagues in the Chaplaincy and in similar wellbeing roles to mine across the University, that the demanding characteristics of a prestigious university like Edinburgh led to a lot of students feeling like they were the only one who felt a certain way.

“We wanted a forum to be able to bring together students and staff to dispel this feeling. It began with a workshop on imposter syndrome – ‘Am I the only one who feels they don’t deserve to be here?’. The staff and students who attended found it very helpful,” she concludes.

Projects like this are only the beginning. Lorna is keen to continue and build on the work she’s already done to ensure a strong sense of community throughout the institution: “I want our student and staff community to be vibrant and close-knit, 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.