Interview With Union Advice Centre

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Here at Wessex Scene, we decided to sit down with Sam Scott, a member of the Union Advice Centre, to find out more about the facilities available and the benefits they offer to help students throughout their university life.

What is the Advice Centre’s role at the Union?

We are completely independent from the university and we are completely, 100% here for the students.

My role is as a Student Advisor, and there are a total of four of us here. I offer mainly finance, accommodation and housing advice, but overall we cover a very broad spectrum. We’ve been doing it for a very long time, so there really is not much that will shock us at this point. It’s a brilliant job and I absolutely love it.

What makes being a student advisor such a great job? 

It’s being able to offer something important. From my experience with talking to students, I’ve found they don’t have a lot of places where they can go and have an hour to actually sit and talk and have someone. You can come and chat to us about literally anything and, even if we don’t know the answers, we’ll know where to find them.

We can help students with almost anything, from complaints about the university, appeals, academic integrity, student finance, debt, hardship, housing, bad landlords, bad agents. The whole lot, we’re here for you.

How do these Union facilities like yourself and Enabling interlink? 

We tend to sign-post to one and another quite a lot. Enabling are more for the emotional welfare side to things, whereas we are very practical. Sometimes you’ll see a student who has an issue with, let’s say, a housemate. This could be affecting their well-being and their course, so it all kind of bleeds into each other. Similarly, those who go to enabling may do so because they are feeling very overwhelmed, which could be because of their course or housing situation. So enabling will sign-post to us and we’ll sign-post to enabling; we have a very good working relationship.

The absolute last thing we want is for a student to be bounced between different departments, if a case does require that, then we will do everything we can to make sure this is the last point of call.

What would you say is the mission statement of the advice centre? 

Essentially what we aim for is to support, guide and empower. We don’t want to be making decisions for students and that’s not what we’re here to do. If you come to us with a problem, we’ll talk you through the range of options and the pros and cons but then it’s up to you to make a decision. Ultimately you can’t have someone you don’t know making decisions for you, it’s not empowering at all and that’s not what we want.

What facilities does the Advice Centre offer to students? 

Mainly advice on finance, housing and academics. However, if someone comes to us, we will always listen to what they have to say and give them the space and time they need. We’re all really friendly and I think what we offer is a very quiet, calm environment for people to unload. We’ve got the tissues here, and we expect people to cry because sometimes things are just really stressful and that’s absolutely fine. If a student comes to us with a problem, we will stop what we are doing and listen to them and I don’t believe there is a lot of other spaces at university where you can do that.

What would you say to a student who is unsure or quite nervous about coming to visit you?

That’s always the tough part. Especially if you’re suffering from depression and anxiety, trying to build up the courage to come and talk to someone is really tough. At the Advice Centre, we are really friendly. This is our job, we’ve been doing it for a very long time and we absolutely love it. The hardest step is walking through the door, but once you are here, people tend to leave feeling a lot better.

I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths but we have a 95% satisfaction rate and students report feeling more confident once they’ve spoken to us. The hardest step is actually verbalising the issues that you have but we are the people you are probably best coming to talk to, either us or the enabling service.

I suppose the Wednesday 1-4:30pm dropping sessions are a really good way of helping to overcome that, because making an appointment can sometimes feel very formal and daunting whereas drop-in creates a comfortable, open door policy. Are the drop-in sessions a new thing?

They are, yes. I think they have been happening for just over a year now and it has been hugely successful. From our point of view, particularly with finance, sometimes we see people and it only takes 10 minutes to fix the issue, which means a whole hour appointment is needless and it takes away from other students who might want to see you in that time period. Also, like you say, sometimes when someone who suffers with anxiety books an appointment, they might not want to wait three/four days because although they had the courage to book it, they might not have the courage to come back. Whereas if they can drop in and know they’ll be seen within an hour then that can be much, much easier for people.

If you do come along to the drop-in and don’t feel that 15-20 minutes is enough then you’re always more than welcome to book a full hour appointment. Sometimes we’ll even offer a student a longer appointment if we feel that they could benefit from that and of course, if the student wants it, because ultimately that is who we are open for.

If the drop-in sessions become even more popular this year, would there be the possibility of extending the time slot to two days a week?

For the general drop-in, I wouldn’t think so but with the finance one, yes. We’ve already been putting on extra appointments for finance this year and again, it has worked really well. What we used to have was a clog of appointments and during that time students would be panicking thinking, ‘my tuition fees need to be paid’, ‘I can’t cover my rent’, ‘I’ve got no money to live off’ and we don’t want that. If they can come and see us quicker, it’s better. I’ve been running extra sessions on Friday morning but what we are going to do next October is run them everyday – hopefully no one will ever have to wait more than 12 hours.

If anyone is sat there feeling awful, worrying and panicking and getting themselves into a state, then please just come and see us. It doesn’t matter whether it is between 9-5, just come in. If it is outside of those hours then there are services available that students can use.

How can a student’s life benefit from using the Advice Centre? 

I’d like to think that just talking to someone can do a lot of good. Sometimes just getting it all off your chest makes you feel so much better. We’re a professional service so we will sit and listen to you and let you explain all of your problems.

But we also have practical help to offer, for example, if someone is being harassed by another student, then we can talk them through the procedures that are in place to prevent that. Or if they are going to an appeal then we’ll try our best to attend that meeting with them because appeals over academic integrity can be terrifying, students worry that they are going to get kicked off their course and their world is going to come crashing down. We’re here to help them through that process and it’s about having someone on your side.

How do you improve the service?

Well, we send back feedback questionnaires after appointments because if there is something we are doing that students aren’t happy with, then we want to know. I believe the drop-in sessions were formed off the back of that feedback so it really does help.

Why is it important for students to seek further help from the advice centre?

I think there is a multitude of reasons. Some are practical:

-Academic integrity and appeals – we can help students write support statements and help put them at ease.

-Student finance – we can phone the practitioner staff and go beyond the frontline staff.

-Housing and deposit issues – we can help students who have housing problems, we can help them get their deposit back from their landlord and guide them through regulations and procedures.

-Fitness to practice issues, which means that if there is a possibility that their career is on the line, we’ll talk through the procedure and help prepare them for the meetings and the panel.

It’s about receiving support, not just initially in a one-off meeting, but ongoing support if it’s needed.

We also run things like, ‘Look after your mate‘ which is a campaign run by student minds who then train us to deliver the presentation. The aim is to get students to recognise how they feel. You may have a friend who is not very well or suffering from anxiety and depression and you want to support them and make sure they are okay, but you also need to make sure that you are okay as well. It’s about teaching students how to offer that support in the correct way and how to recognise those symptoms.

Ultimately, I think there’s something about going and talking to someone who a) you don’t know and b) is a professional that makes people uneasy, and that’s the thing that needs to be broken down. In order to do well in your course, sometimes you have to go and get support. In a kind of twisted logic, if you apply for special consideration, one of the first things they ask you is who you have spoken to for support, so it is really important for students who are struggling to come and talk to somebody.

You just have to walk through the door and someone will be here to talk to you.

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Former English Student | Travel Editor 2016-17 |Current MSc. International Politics | Editor at Wessex Scene for 2017-18.

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