Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A long post about the Commuters Society at Winchester Uni

Okay, so here's the thing.  This morning, I received this letter in the post:

I am totally stunned and feel incredibly honoured and very embarrassed!  This really is quite a big deal - I looked up the Vice-Chancellor's Leadership Award on our uni website and here's what it says:

Leadership throughout the University of Winchester is a key ingredient for our success. The University would like to recognise the achievements of those who demonstrate leadership in any way and at every level through an annual award which will be presented each year at Graduation.
Aims  To recognise the achievements of those who demonstrate leadership in any way and at every level.
Eligibility  All staff and students.
Criteria  The University will recognise leaders who have made an outstanding contribution to the University through one or more of:
· Developing the mission and objectives of the University
· Driving forward improvement of the University’s management systems and performance
· Demonstrating leadership in their engagement with the local, regional or international community Reinforcing a culture of Excellence within the University
· Effectively leading and managing change
· Demonstrating innovation in the development of one or more of the Universities six values (intellectual freedom, social justice, diversity, spirituality, individuals matter, creativity)
Nomination  Nominations may be made by students/staff/ governors of the University of Winchester. All nominations must be seconded by two others. Nominations should clearly state how the nominee has contributed to the University (one of the six categories above) and include a short supporting statement of no more than two paragraphs.
Selection  The nominations will be received by SMT who will decide on the strength of the nomination to award the individual.
Awards  The recipient will receive a letter from the Vice- Chancellor to congratulate them on being awarded and recognised for having made an important contribtion to the University. The recipient will then be invited to attend a Graduation service of their choosing to receive an award of £1000 for their chosen project grant, and they will be invited to attend lunch at the service.

  Well, I wanted to share what it's all about, so here's the long story! I began my uni life as an outsider on two key levels, firstly as a mature student and secondly as a commuting student.  I’m not going to lie – it was hard.  I’d imagined fist thumping debates with other first years, followed by choruses of ‘let’s agree to disagree and have a couple of beers’!  I absolutely had not anticipated the glass wall that would leave me feeling isolated, disconnected and outcast. With the glorious gift of hindsight I am able to see that this situation came about because practically every student goes to uni feeling nervous, wanting desperately to fit in and to make friends and being utterly terrified that that won’t happen.  So what do they do?  They arrive, they meet their new flatmates, and they cling to each other with all that they have.  They create an impenetrable glass wall around this new friendship group – it means everything – no one leaves, no one enters.  Uni really is like a real life Hunger Games!!

For me, as a commuting student, I found it to be a really lonely time.  I couldn’t make friends, and it’s not like I’m afraid to chat to people.  I often joke that I would talk to a lamp post if there was nobody else around.   There were a huge number of practical issues that I faced that made it really hard to get stuck in to uni life.  For example, whilst the accommodated students could roll out of bed ten minutes before a lecture, and arrive on time yielding their textbook, a piece of paper and a pen, I had to plan my day (which, with a two hour commute to uni begins at 5.30 in the morning) with military precision.  I had to bring books for all my lectures, which I would then have to carry around with me for the whole day.  On days when I had a long gap between lectures, I’d want to work on my most pressing assignment, so I would need all the books and materials I was using for that piece of work.  I either had to prepare and carry my lunch, flask of coffee and water bottle, or I would have to spend a fortune buying all my food and drink on campus.  And then there was the issue of where to go between lectures.  Even if I was lucky enough to break through the invisible glass wall and make some friends, a trip into town for a coffee or beer after lectures wasn’t an option when I was carrying three bags of books, a laptop, a lunch bag and a flask.  So I would  find a space, pitch up, and the reality is that that’s where I would spend most of my day when I wasn’t in lectures.

But these practical and social issues weren’t going to stop me!  I’d go into our Learning cafés or the student bar and scan the room for other people sitting on their own, then I’d sidle up to them in a slightly creepy and desperate way, and just start chatting.  These people were usually a captive audience because they too were surrounded by bags and couldn’t make a quick get-away!  But most of the time, they didn’t want to make a quick get-away.  Most of the time they were really happy to have made a new friend, to have somebody to chat to, to have a giggle with, and to compare experiences.  And that was when I started to see a pattern evolving.  They were almost always commuters.  They too were struggling to break through the invisible wall.  They too were bound to their spot by the impracticalities of commuting student life.  Time and time again, I met people whose experiences of uni echoed mine.  They were miserable, lonely, they were beginning to feel that coming to uni had been a big mistake and they were considering their options.   I really felt that something needed to be done.  We needed to find a way to bring these people together, so that they could make friends with other students who understood the difficulties they faced as commuters, and we needed to find a way to ease the practical challenges of being a commuting student.

While all this was going on in the periphery of my student life, I was continuing with my studies. Whilst stood at the photocopier one day I noticed a poster advertising a programme called the Student Fellows Scheme. The poster said, “The Student Fellows Scheme is an attempt to both increase the level of student engagement with teaching and learning at The University of Winchester and to empower students to address varied issues, problems or barriers to a satisfying teaching, learning and social experience.”  As the words registered, I began to see that here might be an opportunity to put the plight of the commuting students on the map.

And so I began to put a plan together.    It seemed to me that the primary advantage for local students was their ability to go home between lectures, study in a comfortable environment, to make themselves lunch and dinner, coffees, and sometimes to put their books down and just go for a walk, or go and meet a friend, or even to go and join in with one of the vast numbers of events and activities that are going on at uni at any given time.   We needed to find a way, as the poster had put it, to remove the barriers to a satisfying learning and social experience for commuting students.

By the time I went to my Student Fellows interview, I was armed with a full-scale plan for commuter fightback!  Winchester has a fabulous Student Union with huge numbers of societies and clubs, and I decided that a good starting point would be a Commuters Society, giving these students the chance to socialise and make new friends, and to give them a platform for sharing their experiences.  I wanted a commuter common area, which needed to include comfy sofas and chairs for students to relax and read during long gaps between lectures, but also so they could chat and socialise with their fellow commuters.  I wanted a microwave and fridge, so that commuters had a choice about whether to buy, carry or make their own food, and a kettle, so that a few of cups of coffee over the course of a day wouldn’t break the bank.  And above all else, we needed lockers, somewhere for commuters to store their bags so they could actually go and involve themselves in university life, by joining other clubs and societies and simply by interacting with other students.
At that interview, I could tell that that the programme leader really liked my idea, and that he could see the amazing benefits if we could get this project off the ground.  I could also tell that he was sceptical about whether that could ever happen.  Even at that early stage, he mentioned that space on the university campus was pretty much the biggest issue the uni faced, and that requests for additional space for things was at a premium!

Through the Student Fellows Scheme I was introduced to a huge number of people who might be able to help to get our commuter common area off the ground.  I had founded the Commuter Society quite early on, and by Christmas we had nearly 100 members and by Easter we had nearly 200.  That meant I had a direct channel to talk to lots of commuters about their experiences which meant I could begin to really evidence the need for the provisions I was requesting.  But still I was struggling to find success and each time, I would go back to the Fellows team and they would give me the name of a new person to try.  Often when those people couldn’t help me, they’d give me the name of someone else to speak to.  Eventually I was down to the last name on what had been an exhaustive list of uni staff members who may have been able to help!  So I emailed my last person… and I heard nothing back.  After a week I emailed again, and I received a reply.  “I am dealing with it.”  On the one hand I wanted to be really incensed by the curt tone of the email.  On the other hand, this was an open door. Somebody was looking at my project and they weren’t saying no!  I waited.  Nothing.  Another week gone by.  Nothing.  I was literally at the point of defeat when I received an email from a chap who said his line manager had asked him to speak to me – he thought it was about commuting – and would I like to meet!

By this time, I was well versed in arguing my case!  When I met with the chaps from the Environment team, they – like every other person I’d spoken to since my project began – had lots of counter points to make, but I had an answer for everything.  They had allowed 30 minutes for the meeting, but it went on for two hours, and ended with us literally walking around the uni looking at suitable areas so they could get an idea of exactly what I wanted.  It was an exciting moment and let me promise you, that meeting more than made up for a curt email!  From that day, the project went from strength to strength, and within three weeks, a temporary Commuter area opened up in a staff office block.  I was told the trial would go up to the end of term, and that if it wasn’t well used it would close in the summer and that would be the end of the matter, but that if I could evidence its use and need, we would be given a permanent space for the new school year.

Well.  I was like a woman possessed!  If I could get a notice somewhere I did!  When you turned on the uni intranet, there we were – Commuter student area opening!  On the Student union website – Commuter student area opening!  The freshers, page, the photocopying rooms, the notice boards – the fence panels in the car park (target audience, right?!) there we were – Commuter student area opening!  And of course, by now we had over 200 society members to get out there and spread the word too!  The response was phenomenal – often there was standing room only in our temporary area.  People were literally sitting on the carpets!  It was an amazing and exciting experience, and the very best thing was that the commuters were now feeling that they had somewhere of their own in the uni, they had a sense of belonging and they were able to make friends.  I left a guest book in the temporary room and invited people to leave their feedback – and it was resoundingly positive.  Within just a couple of weeks, I found myself in a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor of the uni and our guest book, appealing for a permanent commuter space and by the time our meeting was over, she had agreed.

As we speak, the Commuter Society has gone from strength to strength. In its first year the society won two Student Union awards at Winchester.  Last September, as I began my second year at uni, members of our society donned our very own Commuter Society t-shirts, and went out across the uni to meet and greet new freshers.  We were able to tell them that Winchester really welcomes and considers its commuting students, and we were able to invite them along to our brand new – and permanent Commuter Lounge.  Oh but it’s not just a lounge!  It’s a home from home for commuting students, with sofas and comfy chairs to chill or to read, with a kitchen area and a dining table and chairs, with lockers, with a quiet study room with desktop pcs  and a printer, all linked into the network, spaces for laptops, with a shower for cyclists or for commuters who are braving a night out at the Student Union nightclub, and all accessed only by commuters with a special access card!  People use it for all sorts of things and you only have to see it in use to know that the commuters really do feel they have a home on campus.  And to see all the new students getting to know people, and settling in without experiencing those feelings of isolation that we experienced, well that was worth every single door shutting, or rejection email.  It’s an amazing feeling to know that my project has had that kind of impact.

Here are some pictures of our wonderful Commuters Louge:


The project has also opened numerous doors for me at uni.  Aside from the obvious opportunities to meet new friends and be totally immersed in uni life, I was invited to sit on the steering group for an amazing national, government funded project called REACT which is all about creating a model for improving student engagement for students who might otherwise tend not to get involved in uni life.  It's such an important project, and I'm truly proud to be involved with it and proud of their work.

I was also invited to give a speech at a student engagement conference at Westminster University, where I was able (I hope) to inspire students to become involved with their university on a higher level.  Representing Winchester was a great experience and meant a great deal to me.

I'm so pleased with all these successes, and receiving the Leadership Award is proof that there has been a genuine culture change for commuting students at the university, which is something with which I guess I can feel immensely proud.  I'm not looking forward to having to stand on stage at the graduation ceremony while my nominators say nice things about me to 1500 people, but I do recognise that it's a moment of great personal achievement too.

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