Facing Challenges Head-On

With the new academic year well under way and many students now back on campus, CONNECTED takes a look at how the University and its donors are supporting students as they adjust to the many challenges they now face.

From staff volunteering to provide a listening ear, to the donor-funded Life Tools programme helping students develop mental resilience, CONNECTED is proud to share how our community is pulling together to help students overcome challenges created by the pandemic.

Supporting Our Students

The University of Reading’s Supporting Our Students Scheme (SoS) was set up in Spring 2020 in response to the emerging global pandemic and the closure of the University’s campuses, and has now been re-launched for the autumn term.

The initiative was set up by Reading’s Student Success & Engagement team, Reading University Students Union (RUSU), and Campus Commerce, with the aim of helping students feel more connected to our community at a time where we are still finding a new normal.

In Spring 2020, staff and students were asked to volunteer for the scheme, either by providing a listening ear and answering queries online, or providing practical help such as picking up essential items for self-isolating students.

Becky Allen, from the Student Success & Engagement team, said: “We had a huge response – over 360 volunteers – which was amazing, meaning we had more than enough volunteers for students requesting support.

“Some colleagues gave incredible practical support to students who were shielding, such as helping with laundry or collecting food and medicine, and others supported students online by providing a listening ear. We had really positive feedback from students about the difference the scheme made to them at a really uncertain time.”

The scheme has been relaunched for the autumn term, and is now also supported by the Student Welfare Team, in recognition of the continued challenges that students are facing during the pandemic.

Becky said: “Many students based in the local Reading community may need to isolate or quarantine at short notice, and may not have access to online deliveries or peers who can help. In addition, some students may still feel distanced from or struggle to develop usual support networks, so we are going the extra mile to help those that need a little more help.

“We’re very proud to have had over 80 members of staff and 40 students sign-up to support our students so far in the autumn term.”

Life tools

As well as supporting students by offering a listening ear or practical support, thanks to the generosity of our donors, the University is also equipping students with the skills to find a sense of calm and maximise their potential through the innovative Life Tools Programme.

The Student Wellbeing Service-led scheme delivers a research-based programme that contributes to students’ overall education, according to the Life Tools Manager and psychologist, Dr Alicia Peña Bizama.

She said: “Having a good degree is an achievement; but, if students do not have the ability to self-manage to enable themselves to study effectively and keep well, it makes it harder for them to do well after graduation.

“The Life Tools Programme is based on a framework of using positive psychology and solution-focused approaches. It promotes the development of emotional intelligence, resilience, confidence and mental strength; attributes that enable us to self-manage as individuals.”

The Life Tools Programme is open to Reading’s entire student community, and the training offered is geared towards enriching their student experience.

“The demand for mental health services in society is increasing significantly. It is essential to emphasise prevention.”

Dr Peña Bizama added: “So, it is a great opportunity to provide students who are training to be professionals with the resources to build lifelong practical skills to do well and to look after themselves.”

Although factors such as the cost of university education and a grade-driven employment market contribute to the pressures felt by many students, the Life Tools programme seeks to prepare students to be able to live well in an uncertain and changing world.

The programme runs throughout the academic year, with talks generally lasting for 45 minutes followed by a chance to ask questions.

“Students can dip in and out of the programme. However, to develop these skills it requires practice and reflection on learning – similar to learning a foreign language,” said Dr Peña Bizama of the decision to create the Life Tools certificate to formally reward students committed to their personal and professional development.

The feedback from the 2,000-plus students who have engaged with the course so far suggests the Life Tools Programme is more than fit for purpose.

One recent student said:

“It has equipped me with an array of transferable skills, useful both professionally and personally. From uncovering techniques to maintain my motivation, getting better sleep or managing stress, I have been able to develop a full package of qualities which will help me during university and when I leave.”

Students who have participated in the programme have consistently given very positive feedback. Dr Peña Bizama said: “I find it both  rewarding and stimulating  to be able to contribute to students’ journeys while at Reading.”

Dr Peña Bizama expressed her sincere thanks to the  supporters of the University who have made this ground-breaking addition to Reading’s curriculum possible.

She concluded:

“The impact of funding is tremendous. It can change lives because it gives us the ability to reach more students, enabling us to support them so they can look after themselves,  become well-rounded graduates and do well in life beyond university.”

Find out more about the University’s research in health.

Supporting students

The University’s community is proud to be supporting our students through the various challenges the pandemic has created – including financial challenges. Reading’s students are currently facing desperate financial situations which they could never have prepared for.

The Student Support Fund provides emergency grants to students in unexpected financial crisis; when they have run out of other options and dropping out of university is a very real possibility.

Find out more about our Student Hardship Appeal, or how you can get involved, through the IMAGINE campaign.