Student services leaders come to the Higher Education sector from a variety of starting points, but many have been involved with Students’ Unions at some point in their careers. As Director of Student Support Services at the University of Sheffield, Andy Winter uses his experience as a Students’ Union leader to make sure that every student gets the support that they need.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Andy about creating a sense of belonging on campus, and engaging students who might otherwise not be reached by their university.
I’m currently Director of Student Support Services here at Sheffield University. I grew up in an ex-coal mining village in the North East of England, so I never expected to make a career as a Higher Education professional, but that puts me in the same boat as a lot of other student services leaders.
I went to a very small university in Ripon, and as a result of the university being such a big part of my life, I got very involved in my Students’ Union. I started off as a DJ but then went on to join campaigns, work on my student newspaper and represent other students to the university.
I spent the first fifteen years of my career working in different Students’ Unions across the country, and then I jumped ‘over the fence’ into university work. I moved to Sheffield just under a year ago. I love working in Higher Education because I’m passionate about how going to university can transform your life. It isn’t just about leaving as a more qualified member of the workforce, but about developing in a million different ways as a person.
Today’s students are coming to university in the middle of a lot of upheaval, but we have a lot of experience in helping students settle in, even when they’re very nervous. A former colleague at Nottingham told me about something he called the frame of emotional safety: the idea that there are different social and academic structures build a student’s sense of belonging while they’re at college or Sixth Form, and that this gets disrupted when students leave home for the first time. Moving to an entirely new city and grappling with a new style of education is always going to be disorientating.
As a university, we try to help students replace those parts of that frame – through new friends, wellbeing support systems and social activities like clubs and societies. We also try to avoid putting people in an echo chamber, though; once settled it’s also important that people get the chance to meet a diverse group of peers and learn from each other, instead of sticking to friend groups of people who are just like them.
Engagement has always been a problem for some students, but the landscape and problems entailed have changed since the pandemic. For example, many of the changes that came in during the national lockdowns – like widespread lecture capture and remote activities – were provisions that disabled students had been campaigning for, for years. It’s important that we don’t let those slip away. They really do benefit everyone, and most importantly, they widen participation.
As I see it, ten percent of students will be engaged no matter what the university offers, and another ten percent will never engage no matter how hard we try. It’s the remaining 80 per cent that count, which is why it’s important not to be put off by low numbers of students at events – even if only fifteen students turn up to something, that’s fifteen students who never would have been reached otherwise.
The pandemic has highlighted the impact of social isolation on students too. We work closely with our Students’ Union and our academics to limit the impact of isolation as far as possible. Our approaches are always changing, too; fifteen years ago a freshers’ week lineup consisting solely of club nights was commonplace, but students are asking for more now, and we want to make sure that we offer something for everyone.
Building belonging just isn’t about our academics and staff becoming party planners – if we weave that ethos of working to create relationships between students into everything we do, it comes naturally and the space has room for everyone.
Try as many things as possible – don’t be afraid to move sideways to learn more and broaden your skillset.
I really admire Professor Sarah Sharples, who was Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion during my time working at Nottingham. She always brought drive and passion to her work, but was open to admitting when she didn’t have all the answers.
Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas is a fantastic read to showcase the value of diversity. I also think that The Man They Wanted Me to Be by Jared Yates Sexton, a personal account of the issues with toxic masculinity, is a great insight into some of the biggest problems facing society today.