For first generation university students, the all too common feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ can impede academic and personal development in significant ways. These issues of marginalisation compound when university administrators’ efforts to tackle this miss the mark.
As Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at De Monfort University, Shushma Patel plays a key role in breaking down barriers for students that feel isolation in ways that meet the nuances of their needs.
Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, sat down with Shushma to discuss her journey into the sector, the importance of allyship, and all she has done to remedy low levels of engagement at De Monfort.
I’m currently Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience here at De Montfort University in Leicester. I came to Higher Education and student experience specifically, because of the positive impact that getting a university education can have on an individual’s life.
Higher Education really transforms a person’s trajectory, and has a ripple effect in their families and local communities. Students are central to everything that happens in academia, and their success is the most important part of any Higher Education professional’s work.
The biggest barriers are a lack of self-belief and self-efficacy, without a doubt. To help remedy this, it’s important that women in STEM – especially those from underrepresented backgrounds – have sponsors, mentors and champions in the spaces they want to be a part of.
We also need help from male allies. We can break down these barriers, it just takes teamwork and drive from everyone in STEM fields.
It’s absolutely our responsibility as university leaders to enable students to connect with each other, whether that’s through clubs and societies or identity networks. We work hard to develop a sense of what belonging actually means at De Montfort in particular, for our staff and students.
We also want our students to feel that sense of identity wherever they are in their journeys with us. Whether they’re yet to begin their study or have graduated and are using our careers advisory services. We’ve been bringing all of the resources together into one online space, which is a process we’re still undergoing. We also focus on bringing together academic, social and SU activities with the wellbeing support we provide.
Engagement means something different at every university, and across contexts – it isn’t as simple as just measuring lecture attendance and assignment completion rates, for example. Our approach to engagement takes a broad look at the whole academic year, from inducting our students and teaching them about our values to helping them build friendships and academic relationships throughout their time with us.
We’re keeping this in focus as we prepare to take on students after the summer, because so many generations of students will be affected by a loss of school time going forward. We work directly with our students to find out what they need, and the opportunities they want to see.
One programme I’m proud of is one that I worked on during my time at my previous institution, where I worked with an investment bank that was looking to diversify its intake of young professionals. I was part of a steering committee that helped the organisation develop a plan of action in working.
Engagement means something different at every university, and across contexts - it isn’t as simple as just measuring lecture attendance and assignment completion rates, for example.
I spoke to one student who felt that they couldn’t succeed in finance because they didn’t sound and speak like the majority of professionals in that area. By the end of that programme I was able to show them that they had all of the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed, and that what made them different was actually a strength.
That student has gone on to have a very successful career in investment banking. Being able to see the value of my work in what students go on to do is so rewarding.
It’s a tough environment, but if you work hard and act with compassion, you will succeed. Collaboration is so important, and it’s crucial to approach decisions and disagreements with care for all the stakeholders involved, and to be authentic.
I admire so many people, for lots of different reasons. I can’t name just one, but people who are breaking the glass ceiling in their own ways are a real inspiration to me. Often these people are Women of Colour, especially in STEM fields.
I love The Life of Pi. It speaks to so many of my values when it comes to education, and gives me a real sense of perspective. I was born in East Africa, and remember my family members talking about how they would take steamers to India to visit their relatives. The book really speaks to how migration shapes people’s lives.