Dealing with rebellious teenagers, their stressed out teachers and worried parents doesn’t really sound like something anyone, let alone a busy PhD student, would like to do in their spare time, does it? Admittedly, these are some of the ‘perks’ of working in widening participation, but hopefully, I’ll be able to show you the brighter side of it too, and encourage you to consider taking part in it.

My story

I’ve given you some insight into widening participation in my last post but, honestly, I didn’t know too much about these programmes when I first started implementing them. I applied for theHelping others have new ideasse roles mostly because I was looking for some additional income and had a background in education and youth work. This definitely sounded like something I could do!

Luckily, I was right. So far I have led sessions for Student Progression Team, an intense widening participation programme run by jointly by Warwick and Coventry University, I have e-mentored students within nation-wide Realising Opportunities programme, worked as PhD tutor for the Brilliant Club and facilitated various widening participation events and outreach which took place on campus or in my local schools.

My experience was intense, challenging and, above all, very rewarding. First of all, as an EU student, I had a crash-course in the UK education system. There were many things that surprised me (e.g. no physical contact between the teacher and students) and I had to get used to (wearing visitor’s name badge at all times, even if going to school on regular basis), but really quickly I got the grasp of it and can now proudly explain the difference between a BTECs and A-levels and even have some ideas on what’s happening during PSHE (vague, but still…).

Breaking misconceptions, removing stains and letting go…

Even though it seems the information on higher education is widely accessible, I’ve come to realise that so many students are poorly informed and have quite a few misconceptions about what happens at universities, how Students Finance works and similar. However, the biggest obstacles were those within the students themselves. Many of them have heard so often they are not “university material”, that they would not fit in and that universities are for posh, rich kids. Sadly, many of them believed it too.

It isn’t all fun and games, of course, I was (and am being challenged) all the time. Working with so many different young people will mean that difficult, surprising or hilarious moments will occurs too. I’ve had pens exploding in tutorials (and covering the students, myself and the better part of the room in blue ink, very resistant one too, as I still haven’t managed to get all the stains out), students spraining their foot, unrequited love dramas in the group, teachers’ unwilling to release the students from their classes, parents refusing to go home or elsewhere and sitting through the workshops, public transport joys, fire alarms and drills… Not to mention the horrifying experience of running into your ex-mentees months later and getting asked have you already finished your thesis yet, why not and why do you write so slowly. Ouch.

Finally, I’ve had students telling me that it’s all nice and well, but uni isn’t really what they want to do. And that’s fine, it important to know when you need to let go.

A job worth doing

Nonetheless, it is a job worth doing because of all the other moments, like your mentees telling you they’ve learnt so about universities and students’ life, hearing them say they could see themselves living on the campus and, finally, helping them research the courses they are interested in. I won’t dwell on changing other people’s lives and making the world a better place, but you get the picture.

I know that widening participation is far from being a being the perfect or only solution to educational disparities and I’ll risk being corny here, but you CAN do something truly amazing!

Have you had any experience with WP programmes? Any moments you’re proud of or anecdotes you’d like to share?