It’s 10am on a Wednesday and I’m trying to shoot a balloon with a bow, alongside a group of year seven boys; they’re cross because I keep hitting the bullseye and one of them just shot a bow at the wall. As I shepherd the boys out the hall – which, if you’ve ever tried to direct hyperactive young boys who’ve just spent an hour pretending to be Robin Hood, you will know that this is no mean feat – I consider how lucky I am to being paid to do this.
I’ve had ten different jobs since I turned 16; from a waitress at Little Chef, to flipping burgers at McDonalds and selling clothes at Next, there isn’t a section of the hospitality industry that I haven’t touched and by the time I arrived at university I wanted a change. I applied for the role of Student Ambassador because I wanted to try something different. After six months of showing off my bedroom to visiting Freshers, I felt excited to be the one giving the tours.
Throughout my three years on the job I’ve not just played archery; I’ve toured campus extensively, driven to London to give a talk, got hopelessly lost in Kent, and eaten a lot of sandwiches; I’ve met people from across the country and learnt how to give presentations on student life. I’ve also got really good at understanding student finance (if you ever need to know how much interest you’ll be paying, hit me up).
But there’s more to outreach than being a student ambassador and I sat down with Charlotte Wheatland, Assistant Head of Outreach, and Becky Price, Widening Participation Manager, to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes in the office.
Charlotte told me, “Outreach has a specific meaning. It’s about going into widening participation schools and working with students to raise their aspirations and talk them into progressing into higher education.” The team works without approximately 140 schools in the local area which have been targeted to meet certain criteria, such as a high number of free school meals, or schools where they have lots of students from lower participation neighborhoods. From Romany Gypsies to students in Great Yarmouth the team work in the local area to inspire students.
“Ever since being at university I’ve worked with disadvantaged young people. I’ve always worked with the people that really are overlooked and not helped. I saw a massive gap in the support that was given to these young people,” Charlotte said. Previously a careers advisor, Charlotte explained that she wanted to affect change: “As a careers advisor you can’t. You can just say this is the way life is. I’m massively in favour of equality and fairness and I don’t think anyone should be disadvantaged as a result of where they were born or what their background is. It’s all about potential.”
Becky said, “Attracting and attaining the university students is only part of the picture.” Her role involves ensuring that students at UEA are all having the experience they want to have and are achieving what they want to achieve without any disadvantages due to background. She continued, “Whether that be first generation, coming from a more disadvantaged school or area, being disabled, being male on a very female course or being female on a very male course.” Becky previously worked in market research, developing a specialism in qualitative research and doing a lot of work for charities: “I spent a lot of my career identifying where the problems are and what could help… I wanted to be able to take that and doing something with it.”
She added, “I am incredibly aware of how privileged my background was and how lucky I was to have the parents that I had that sent me on all of that path. But it isn’t the same for all our students here. I do look back quite a lot at my time at UEA and think I didn’t make the most of it. I want to make sure that others don’t look back with that feeling afterwards as well.”
They explained to me some of the events they run to help affect change, from campus tours, to residentials, mentoring, tutoring and workshops and they work with teachers and academics. Charlotte’s favourite event has been a medical aspirations residential. Paid for by a donor and an alumnus of the university it is solely for widening participation students. She said, “it gives such a huge boost for those students to help them progress into higher education. For me it’s that reality check: do they actually know what it is to be a doctor? So then they are better prepared and more likely to be successful, and when they start they’re really likely to get to grips with the workload and what’s expected.”
We then turn to the ambassador scheme. Charlotte told me, “Being really blunt… who wants to talk to me about going to university? We’re not the right people. I don’t know what’s going on in university now – I went to university in a time where there was no real internet. I had an email address but no one used it. And we’re not that old!”
She added, “in a lot of cases they are from the local areas the students are from as well so they can connect on that level. They show students that ‘I achieved it, you can achieve it as well.’ We wouldn’t be able to do our work without ambassadors, really, they are fundamental to everything that goes on in our team.
“They are our champions and we love them dearly for that.”