Student wellbeing matters. Cardiff’s Director of Student Support and Wellbeing, a Cardiff alum and donor, and a current support recipient discuss how a revolutionary approach is making a real difference.
In September 2018, Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams OBE broke ground on the Centre for Student Life – a building that will change the landscape of Park Place when it opens during the 2020-21 academic year.
The building signals Cardiff’s commitment to the wellbeing of every student. This is an enormous task: more than 30,000 students live and learn at the University each year.
What is Student Support and Wellbeing?
“We’re here to help every Cardiff student succeed,” says Ben Lewis, Director of Student Support and Wellbeing at Cardiff University.
From careers and professional development to counselling and mental health support, Ben’s department enhances all aspects of Cardiff’s student experience. “Often ‘student support’ is talked about as being outside the classroom,” he adds. “But a lot of it comes back to education. Our programmes enable students to achieve the best possible outcome from their time at Cardiff, with a more level playing field in every respect.”
Ben’s team share a common goal: “We can really transform the lives of Cardiff students for the better.”
Education for all
Cardiff’s student support starts long before university begins. Scholarships and funds provided by donors enable care leavers, students in financial hardship and others to apply to universities in the first instance.
Cardiff alum and donor John Endacott (BScEcon 1989), Head of Tax Practice at accountancy firm PKF Francis Clark, works closely with Cardiff Business School to support one such scholarship.
“It’s wrong to assume that it’s easy for people to access learning,” says John. “Social mobility has been damaged and the driver for me is that people who are able to achieve should be given the opportunity to do so.”
By supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, John has joined a growing number of donors whose generosity help transform the life prospects of individual students.
John adds: “Many students will experience difficulties at some point. They deserve the support to come out the other side a stronger person. The more you can help them through tough times, the better.”
These philanthropic acts are massively impactful for individual students. “I hear incredible stories about students who are supported and who now have very different – and far better – lives than they might otherwise have had,” says Ben.
A holistic approach
Widening access to degree programmes is simply where support begins. Being a student in 2018 has its challenges.
“Higher education is an inherently testing environment”, says current student Nichola Bagshaw (Psychology 2015-), support recipient and wellbeing champion. “Mental health issues affect one in four of us. You have to consider that in the context of an environment where chronic stress is inevitable.”
Having experienced both sides of student support, Nichola believes that Cardiff’s service has evolved substantially, in part due to its holistic approach.
“So many challenges are interlinked, so you can’t look at them in isolation or tick them off one-by-one,” she says. “Cardiff has put together a multidisciplinary team with specialist counsellors and experts in specific areas who work closely together.”
Work to engage positively with students begins on the day of arrival, with a focus on mental health support and community building. Students are actively welcomed to Cardiff by trained peer mentors and new Residence Life Assistants (including Nichola): fellow students who act as constant points of contact in Halls of Residence and an ‘early warning system’ for issues that require onward referral.
“These joined-up services enable people like me to function and thrive,” says Nichola. “In my case, the service adopted a behavioural approach of how to set goals and achieve them, and guided me through huge decisions like a change of course.”
Having coped with mental health difficulties with the help of Cardiff’s counselling services, this is the account of a student now acting as a Wellbeing Champion.
“I took to University work and the creation of a rigid routine as a convenient escape from my increasingly dark thoughts. This routine basically took on a life of its own, becoming a source of huge stress and anxiety.
“However, with a combination of medication and counselling, I began to be able to look at my negative beliefs and working routine with greater clarity [and] overcome most of the symptoms of depression and anxiety I was experiencing.
“If someone is going through something similar, there are so many people at University and so much support that you can access.”
“Visibility and access have been key factors in our overhaul of student services,” says Ben. “We are utilising digital platforms to make support readily available.”
“We want to provide the same help and support to those who are on healthcare placements in North Wales, or on Global Opportunities internationally, as we can for a student based across the road in Main Building,” he says. “Students are technologically savvy and digital platforms are allowing us to close that gap.”
Counselling services are already offered online and students can apply for bursaries like the Hardship Fund without ever visiting the Park Place offices. Those who prefer face-to-face conversations can still have them, and the new Centre for Student Life will facilitate those meetings, too.
For Nichola, the combination of new physical and digital infrastructure will normalise access and engagement for students. “Students arrive and they’re dazzled by information about the lives they should be leading,” she says. “They are establishing their identities and initially their priorities might be elsewhere.”
“My experience is that when it comes to them actually needing support, they either don’t know that it’s available or feel that there’s a stigma about asking for help,” she says. “In fact, asking for advice or help is perfectly normal. It’s just that sometimes we need to be proactive in starting that conversation.”
Life after Cardiff
Another key area for students is careers and employability. “We’ve seen a big shift in how students approach their careers in the last five years,” Ben says.
Cardiff’s Student Support and Wellbeing team provide key services ranging from careers advice (available up to two years after graduation) to workplace opportunities, skills workshops and tailored advice relating to startup enterprise.
It’s another area in which even a seemingly small contribution can have a profound effect. “It’s not always easy to get relevant work experience,” says Ben. “It’s a well-publicised fact that, particularly for young people from lower income backgrounds, it can be difficult to find the work experiences which complement their studies. My door is always open to anyone who says ‘I want a student intern’.”
Alumni, too, are appreciating the benefit of offering students workplace opportunities. John works alongside Cardiff graduates daily at PKF Francis Clark. “There’s great benefit to the academic rigour and thoroughness of the courses that they’ve been on,” he says. “I wish we had more Cardiff students and alumni working here!”
“Cardiff has a fantastically progressive service,” says Nichola. “It’s constantly asking: what’s next?”
With the creation of the Centre for Student Life, a modern, tailored facility at the heart of the University, that change will accelerate further.
“A lot of universities evolve their student services by clipping on bits over time, and as you grow that becomes difficult to sustain,” says Ben. “What we’re doing is pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete and resetting for students of today.”
“We’ve got this brilliant new facility, an online presence to complement our physical ambitions and a number of innovative, targeted programmes,” Ben says. “By bringing these elements together we have an opportunity right now to do something really special for Cardiff students.”
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