Student Reflections on the Bristol Wellbeing Conference

The public outreach conference was conceived in late December 2019 and was envisioned as the launch for an annual series of conferences celebrating Wellbeing research and practice across Bristol. Our (BILT, SU Wellbeing Network and Education Network) hope was that the conference would create a space for people working on or interested in mental health and wellbeing to come together, network, collaborate, and connect.

We aimed to galvanise and centralize wellbeing-related practices, initiatives, and research going on across the city.

Over the day we were inspired by a burgeoning community of students, academics, creatives, and wellbeing practitioners, all working on innovative ways to alleviate mental illness and barriers to student flourishing in the future.

We were honoured to host Dr Dominique Thompson a TEDX speaker and wellness consultant as our keynote speaker. Thompson spoke sensitively about “Young People’s Mental Health in the 21st Century: A Perfect Storm?” to round up this action-packed day. Themes around perfectionism, competitiveness, and fears of failure tormenting students and impeding on their performance rather than facilitating creativity and risk-taking.

Alongside our more research-based activities, participants enjoyed a whole host of creative workshops from drama therapy to breathing soundscapes, music, and yoga.

The wellbeing themes covered throughout the day were wide and varied. Contentious issues were not overlooked as participants contributed to the debate on Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Health: A Harm Reduction approach or Zero Tolerance? with Dr Alison Golden-Wright.

We also hosted a deeply honest and touching panel discussion on the theme of coping with Grief and Illness which feels particularly pertinent in these uncertain times of COVID-19, perhaps this topic is something that should be touched on widely in the University agenda so as to prepare students and staff for the unexpected and uncontrollable facts of life.

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Grief and Illness Panel (from left to right): Gigi Auslebrook, Michael Pearson, Stephanie Clark, Lucy Selman, and Havi Carel.

Gigi Auslebrook who was representing CoppaFeel’s cancer coffee mornings throughout the day and participated in this panel spoke honestly and openly about her own experiences of grief whilst at University wrote:

 “I thought the conference was great, the turnout was excellent, and I enjoyed participating in the panel discussion. I was so privileged to talk alongside Michael Pearson (deputy head of counselling), Lucy Selman (academic in palliative care) and Havi Carel (philosopher on death and illness). It was great listening to people speaking so openly about grief and illness and essentially normalising the conversation around it, as death feels like such a taboo subject to talk about. Participating in the panel helped me to feel less alone with my experiences which was a relief. I would have really appreciated a conference like this taking place last year when I was going through everything. It would have helped me so much. I would strongly recommend hosting another panel/ workshop/ talk on grief and illness next year as it still affects so many of us! I spoke to Havi more personally after the panel for a more in-depth discussion. It was comforting to hear about her experiences and discuss mine so openly with her. Also, I was able to speak to wellbeing advisors who didn’t know about my cancer coffee morning which was great Connecting with likeminded people was the most important part.”

One second year Physics student said the conference helped her “to feel excited about the future of mental health and how the day enabled her to make connections, make plans, and make stuff happen”. Providing a networking space for wellbeing practitioners across Bristol is a good starting point for enhancing collaboration and creativity across services and support groups in Bristol. Another student interning at Off the Record, a charity supporting young people’s mental health, described how the conference was a useful opportunity to network with local initiatives.

The most rewarding part of the conference from an organisational point of view was entering into enlivening conversations with fellow students and colleagues about what motivated them to attend or participate on conference day. After weeks of back-and-forth emails trying to organise the day, to have some face to face contact with approachable and friendly folk willing to open up about their experiences, their hopes, and their take-home lessons was enriching.

As we turn towards digital resources to educate our community, may we also remind ourselves of the inherent value and worth of face-to-face encounters, as they often leave a more lasting impression on people. After the pandemic subside, may we better appreciate our interpersonal encounters and open dialogue. Let us set time aside from our desktop screens, emails so we can reclaim the power opening up to each other about “how we are really doing” as so many did at Bristol’s first wellbeing conference in close proximity to one another (something which we may have taken for granted at the time).  

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Owen Barlow, Student Fellow.


Working from Home: A day in the life of a final year student.

Let me start by being frank, sustaining motivation to complete University assignments amid a pandemic is obviously a trying situation. It is only human to initially feel unsettled, stressed, and confused in this situation. These feelings do not make you weak or pathetic, they remind you that you are alive and aware of the world around you. Still, many of us do not want this situation to signal the end of our inspiration and motivation to carry on learning; we have come so far through the education system to give up hope so close to the finish line. Yes, it will take some time to sufficiently adjust to the unfamiliarity of these kinds of external contingencies (it’s a marathon not a sprint), but all we can do is try.

For now, I am trying to take it day by day and accept what I cannot control to instead concentrate on what is within my control, as Goethe writes: “Only the present is our happiness”. So how we choose to spend our time right now in these new confines, how we choose to treat our minds, bodies, and other people will make all the difference. 

I will start this new series of “What to do when?” by addressing one of the most pressing questions that arises from all the changes to the University curriculum: What to do when asked to work from home?

One caveat I must begin by mentioning is that there will be a whole host of resources and words of advice on the internet that encourage a “one size fits all” method to working from home. Take these with a pinch of salt. Remember, we all develop different approaches to how we work best. One of the most fruitful things I did to overcome my tendency to stress over why I was not following the supposedly “Best” study methods was getting to know myself better by asking myself the right questions. One useful resource for getting to know yourself better and how to grow from your strengths rather than dwell on your weaknesses is the VIA survey on character strengths. It takes a little while to complete but it is useful to know how to enhance your strengths and keep yourself happy in the process. Here is what works for me and might work for you.

  1. Establish a morning that works for you: Set your alarm to wake you up at an hour that gives you ample time to savour your free morning’s before sitting at the desk for the 9AM start. 7AM seems to work for me and a couple of my housemates. To enjoy these mornings, I am starting to try out one activity that I always thought was an “ideal” to start the day but never got around to doing before the rush to University or the office.
    I usually try to dip into one of my leisurely reads before heading out, but since I do not want to make living and working from home monotonous, I plan on alternating my morning routine to include reading, morning meditation and a walk round the block (to compensate for the commute to work). Perhaps alternating some of these activities might also work for you, perhaps you have some “ideal mornings” of your own that you have been waiting to try out. 
  2. Remember to do the basics: Get dressed, eat breakfast, shower. Letting these slip creates a sense of lag in our day. Studies show that clothing choices shape our mood, affect our self-motivation and confidence, and have an impact on our problem solving and creative thinking. If you are not one for breakfast make sure you set aside time to eat when you get hungry away from your computer. Eating mindfully and enjoying your breaks away from work is a sure-safe way to wellbeing. 
  3. Create the ‘transition’ space: If, like me and many other students living in private accommodation, you are not spoiled for space, try to settle on a space where you feel you can best transition from work mode to home mode. The space could be the shower, walking around the block again with your headphones on, or dancing to your post-work feel good playlists. Sometimes writing in a loose, stream of consciousness kind of way about what was accomplished and what you were looking forward to doing with your evening helps.
  4. Accept your adaptability: For some of us rigidly scheduling in every hour of the work from home day feels like an insurmountable task. With adaptability, remember that some days it might seem more appropriate to simply follow inspirations and autonomous motivation more freely, whilst others days might require you to rigidly follow the plans and previous orders you set yourself earlier in the day. In any case, stressing over not completing a certain task within a set amount of time can add a burdensome pressure to work fast, rather than work well. Working fast has its drawbacks in terms of inaccuracy, lack of cogency, and not leaving time for critical thinking. So if you’ve hit a wall with the dissertation writing, that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Don’t dwell, write down what has made you stop writing and when you might resolve it on a little note. Then dip into one of your other readings for another essay, exam, or experiment.
  5. Be Realistic: Some people find they approach their ‘To-do’ lists with an overly ambitious hope of completing almost all possible tasks, only to feel deflated at the end of the working day. To avoid situations of demotivating disappointment, I prefer to write down a helpful list of ‘Reminders’ rather than a unnerving list of ‘To-Do’s’ on a One Note or a word document. I highlight the reminders in red, amber, green in terms of their priority and strike them through when complete. 
  6. Zone Out: At the end of the working day… switch off your computer for a while and tidy away papers, books, and stationery. As the work day draws to a close, do something radically different to your previous work. Variation allows us to break up the repetitive days. Cook, paint, draw, sing, dance, whatever is going to shake off the workload tension. Do what keeps you energized rather than the unhelpful coping strategies like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that keep you deflated. Again, this situation is a marathon not a sprint, do the things that will sustain you, not break you.
  7. Reach out and communicate: The most important thing to remember is that your peers, your family, your friends, and your colleagues all share this collective struggle. Open up to them if you have hit a wall, or you are feeling the strain.

This event is not a total catastrophe but it is not nothing much at all either.

Try to situate your perspective somewhere along the middle, strike a balance, and BREATHE.

Owen Barlow, Student Fellow ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’

Humans of Bristol University, News

Best of Bristol: Michael Malay

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Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.

As the February storms raged across an already embattled Britain (weather-wise and politically), Michael and I took refuge in the Multifaith Chaplaincy to contemplate why hope might still be possible for us. After our cups of tea brewed, I congratulated Michael on his BOB award and we promptly entered what would prove to be a fruitful and therapeutic discussion around the relationship between his personal experiences and his teaching.

Michael, from what I have heard from fellow Liberal Artists and your award, your environmental humanities lectures for the “Ideas and Society” module are going down a treat. Do you recall what attracted you to thinking about the connection between the state of the Anthropocene and radical hope?

I can actually trace it back to a particular moment. I used to live up in the Peak District in Sheffield, this was right after the 2017 General Election when the Labour Party were close to winning. We were raking over the ashes of frustrated hope when a friend of mine suggested a book that helped him come to terms with the sense of despair and mourning that ensues after uninvited political events. I asked what it was called, he said it’s called “Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit.  

One of the claims that Solnit defends is that history always moves in non-linear ways. We have this presumption that action A will always lead to action B. But in actual fact, we can never fully comprehend where action A will lead, it can lead us to results so far away that it is simply impossible to fathom.

Rebecca Solnit tells a story of a woman who was part of an anti-nuclear lobby group who started protesting nuclear facilities before scientists found the link between living in close proximity to nuclear activity and deformities in children. This woman said she felt like a weirdo standing outside the White House alone protesting this niche cause. But the leading politician who introduced new regulations for nuclear energy was asked “what gave him the inspiration for devoting his life to this cause?” he replied by saying how he saw a woman protesting outside Washington DC protesting alone and this gave him the motivation to take up the cause with the benefits of access to diplomats.

With this in mind, I think the book reminds humans not to despair if we can’t immediately see a clear positive outcome from an undesired event. History does not work in this linear way. Instead, we ought to anticipate a manifold of different kinds of hope emerging from darkness.

I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to you personally?

I don’t think I had a conscious appreciation of nature as a young person, as I was totally immersed it as a child. I think most children are just immersed in it. It is an intuitive relationship before it is a critical apprehension.

I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. I didn’t really have much access to the natural world there. But when I was 10 my father moved to a very rural part of Australia and we lived on a canal in a small boat and you could take it out in the morning and see the Dolphins before starting your day, that was something I valued. To have the whole ocean ten minutes away from you was pretty special.

I recall you integrating trips out to the sea into your teaching? How was that experience for you and the students?

Oh yes. That trip to Severn Beach was part of a “Teach Out” during the industrial action last year. It cost as little as £1.50 for students to go and learn outside the the classroom, which meant I did not have to cross the picket line. I guess there was no plan to that trip because it was consciously about going out with no aim. Not going to bolster marks for the essays but go to see what the light was doing, what the ocean was doing. Once you give up the learning and teaching ambitions, you create a more informal space that can help students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with others. I think the main outcome of the trip was the chance to notice and appreciate the natural world.

This seems like a mindful experience, something of immense value in the context of low levels of wellbeing among students. In line with thinking about students as subjects, how might learning about hope affect students who are experiencing a volatile era of climate uncertainty and political unsettlement?

The moment you talk about hope, you carry a great burden of responsibility. This is because you are offering something everyone (including students) is looking for. We don’t usually understand hope to involve critical engagement but talking about hope without any critical engagement at all can be a dangerous undertaking. The idea of a critical hope, not a naive or unjustified hope, but a hope that places demands on you seemed more appropriate for my teaching. An unreflective kind of hope can confiscates you of your energies. The “I am hopeful, so I don’t need to take action” mindset.

The critical hope I want to teach is a hope that increases your obligations not diminishes them. I might hope for something to come to pass, for a change, but I actively participate in the change I am looking for, this is think requires more reflection.

What has been giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope?

Last week I had an interesting discussion with students. We were talking about T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland. This poem, written in 1922, seems remarkably relevant, in the context of Australian Wildfires and declarations of a climate emergency. The group dialogue around the meaning of the poem came to be seen as a despairing given our current climate. One of my students raised a perceptive thought in the discussion, he said “My generation is the first generation to become aware that an open future may not lie ahead.” We got to this point where we sense that the only predicable thing now is unpredictability and exposure to threat. It seems like these were the only things that we can now count on.

Regardless of the brute reality, we went back to the poem and at the very end of the poem after all this drought (spiritual and ecological) there is a moment of thunder in the mountains and a trickle of rain follow. It was quite a relief to get to this moment after the constant imagery of immense barrenness. We latched onto that moment of the poem and said if it can rain after all this barrenness. We said there is still a glimmer or a gleam of hope here; there still seems to be the possibility for a liveable future. The new future won’t resemble old ideals of the pastoral and organic harmonious relations between man and nature. But if it can still rain after the devastation of this poem, then there is a responsibility to work towards that glimmer. It is not an indifference to the catastrophe but a motivating phenomenon.

I think that is the notion of hope that Rebecca Solnit is working with when she reminds us that “In the word emergency is the word emerge“.

Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this volatility.

I can understand why activists and young people can get burnt out really quickly. We always come up against the formidable immovability of entrenched capitalist systems. There is this juxtaposition between the insights of possibility and the rigid status quo. The possibility of freedom seems in sight but always meets the perpetual threat of imprisonment and constraint.  Sometimes we have to just sit with this tension between the open-endedness we all desire and the immovability of the systems to recognize that amid all the uninvited outcome some form of hope lies ahead in the future despite this feeling so faraway and distant at times.

The bit of that story I enjoyed most was the fact that you are learning from students as well as students learning from you. What new teaching methods do you hope to bring to students in the future?

I have recently been taking a course with an herbalist called Nathan in Stroud. Before we even asked what can these plants do for us, Nathan asked me to take a willow branch and dance with it, or watch the flower underneath the light, we had to get to know the environment we were learning about in an embodied way. I have been trying to introduce strands of Nathan’s thinking into my teaching in a limited way, as there is only so much teachers can do within the confines of a seminar room. Trying to introduce the possibility of joy and of activity and of whole body concentration into the learning experience is something I want to do more of, especially considering the body is such an integral part of the knowing experience, we are not just “brain in vats” at University. We cannot develop by mere comprehension of abstract concepts without any actual experience to resemble some of this abstract learning.

For instance, in my Liberal Arts ‘Ideas and Society’ class, I recently took students to Royal Fort Gardens just to be present with nature for a little while, to sketch our surroundings, to write poetry about our time in nature. We were not merely reading about trees and their accompanying naturalistic concepts, but we were just standing under the canopy and using our own lived experience to tune into the value of nature. To offer a memorable experience that fosters new ways of learning.

I believe it should not seem “odd” to go to the park and just look at the tress. We are whole bodied people with diverse experiences and different ways of learning from tactile learning, to auditory, to visual I think we benefit from offering diverse ways of learning.

It does seem odd, especially because most of academia rejects mind-body dualism and turns towards thinking about perception from the standpoint of embodied existence. Like why are we still employing the same teaching methods such as large lecture halls, and chalk boards which have been within the University since its inception? I believe the teaching methods ought to evolve with the advances in knowledge about the human condition.

Yes, there seems to be a lag between what we intellectually know about the conditions for human condition and the way we teach. I would like to see more encouragement about taking up teaching methods based on the starting premise of human embodiment.

Who influenced you most whilst at University?

My most influential lecturer was in Brisbane when I took an optional English course whilst studying Economics. His name was Peter and he made the class fun and made students laugh. He had a way of getting students actively involved in the emotions of the book, I still think that was a valuable experience that still resonates with me.

 If there was something serious happening in the book, he had a way of making students feel it, to be with the suffering of the character: intellectually and personally.

I like that idea because I get the sense that this kind of teaching can create an opportunity to connect both between peers and between staff and students. What are your thoughts on “professional distancing” at University?

Nathan often says, “You can only work through difficult and traumatic experiences if you feel completely safe in the company of who you are sharing these emotions with.” I think there is something worthwhile in the difficult exploration of emotions in the classroom and investigating literature provides a space for that. I do think we are shying away from troubling emotions in the classroom and sometimes I think it might be productive to engage with these emotions. The intellectual and emotional do seem interwoven when it comes down to engaged learning.

On an individual case-by-case basis we not only want to be a tutor, we want to be a human who is “fully there” and “present” with students. But on a practical level, academics are still responsible for a large number of students. I guess what it really comes down to is having more staff to match the number of students who will yearn for fuller relationships.

I actually just signed up for the Alumni Network where we can talk about very human questions with students rather than negotiating essay marks and administrative concerns. The e-mails we receive the majority of the times tend to cover the latter, so the network offers a space for a fuller relationship with students. I hope the BOB lecture also provides an opportunity to connect with students in a more informal way.

Owen Barlow, Student Fellow


Faith in the Face of Failure: Well-being conversations at the University of Bristol Multifaith Chaplaincy.

After enjoying lunch at the Multifaith Chapliancy with fellow students, a recent feature on the Humans of Bristol University series, I entered into ‘Faith Conversations: Well-being and the University’ with staff and students. This perceptive conversation was led by Chaplains from different faith traditions, namely Sister JinHo (Buddhist Chaplain), Ed Davis (Coordinating Chaplain) and Jacqueling Conradie-Faul (International Student Chaplain).

(Ed opens the discussion)

When we talk about well-being, we are not only referring to the biomedical aspect. Universally, we all possess fundamental needs that must be met if we are to survive and thrive. We need hope, meaning, understanding, connection, belonging, and acceptance. We need some sense of balance and beauty, though these can appear like high and lofty concepts.

It’s not merely the absence of difficulties, but acknowledging the presence of love, acceptance, and belonging in spite of difficulties. This is where faith, by that I mean faith in a broad sense: nature, relationships, activities, or some higher deities can bring feelings of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.

There is room for difficulty and suffering within well-being, as these feelings are what is part of being human. It is not merely the absence of things such as failure that will give rise to well-being. In the prospect of failure, there is adventure, there is thrill, I think we must also think about failure more holistically.

In light of all this, the faith tradition which I participate in tends to place the inevitability of suffering at the heart of the doctrine. I mean the image of the crucifix, the image of Christianity, represents the image of suffering. Some thinkers have interpreted life as knowing how to live with suffering, how to lessen our adverse response to suffering, and learning how to suffer well.

Should we accept institutional failures then? What does this acceptance of suffering mean for justice?

I don’t think we benefit from trying to repress and erase the prospect of pain and failure that we will inevitably encounter throughout our time at University and beyond. An acceptance of life’s contingency helps us to respond with ease to the unplanned events we must encounter throughout our life.  That is not to say we should never commit to social justice causes, campaigns, and virtuous actions on the basis of hope and faith – on the contrary. This acceptance should not prevent us from committing to some cause greater than ourselves.

Ed draws my attention to an extract from DH. Lawrence’s Shadows.

DH. Lawrence’s poem points out that even in the darkest shadows we can still find moments of well-being, his poetic thought reminds us that is possible to attain moments of well-being in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence, and impermanence.In the face of life’s uncertainty, we must maintain a certain ounce of faith in the more ephemeral moments of beauty and connection.

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown,
it is breaking me down to its own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

Lawrence’s poem resonated with everyone in the room. We agreed the poem touched on something universal and beautiful: the resurrection of beauty in the face of darkness.

In thinking about this poem and the theme of Faith in the Face of Failure, I ask how would you reply to those who are sceptical of faith? Or console those who struggle to sustain a commitment to something a bit more self-transcendent?

Of course, some people worry that faith is too often used as a crutch – and sometimes it is. But I cannot jump to over-generalisations about the values of faith; I prefer to see the search for faith as akin to finding and putting on glasses to see the world with more clarity – this clarity will not always open up pleasurable experiences. But if we do not sustain a hopeful commitment to something: whether that be nature, science, justice or any valuable human endeavour, then how can we begin to orientate ourselves and find a way to push on in the face of inevitable disappointment?

Jacqueline: Also, we should point out the work of action groups when we think about how we can set our values and faith into practice. The Local Government Association worked with Faith Action to see how faith groups can promote health and well-being. Their work came across communities and groups that share their material and human resources generously, their buildings, and their social networks to secure well-being not only for their own community but the society at large. I found this to be quite useful. In Bristol, we have come across these examples of generous interfaith support quite often. The Bristol International Students Centre that is supported by a multitude of different faith networks contribute time, support at foodbanks and food waste prevention centres – it is truly remarkable to see how students benefit from this. There are so many avenues where people can learn to express and practice faith. It can be as big or as small as they deem fit.

Do you think practicing virtue on the basis of faith is conducive to good well-being then?

Sister JinHo: When someone acts out of kindness, whether that be a professor or a peer in your lectures, we have to remember that these kind acts are the fruit of something else. Something that required experience, growth, and cultivation prior to the fruit.

James: I also believe we need to have faith in our own abilities as well as faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith when something does not go to plan, a faith that things will at some point get better. I have been practicing meditation each morning for about five days in a row, I have seen the positive outset of this practice, even though it might not be a direct result. Initially, I found it quite tough and I am sure I was not practicing as much as Sister JinHo would expect, but I am now feeling the benefit.

Elizabeth: Holding a faith in yourself is so important. Finding this faith and maintaining a sense of self-compassion can be so difficult. We grow up in educational settings which are so result-driven. The pressures to score the top grades from GCSE to A-Level are brought forth into University. We expect so much from ourselves now. When we focus solely on the results of our assessment, and work only with these in minds, we often neglect the other valuable parts of ourselves that we derive energy from in order to thrive. I think we need to look more holistically at our university experience so we can grow as people as well as academics.

As the Faith and Well-being conversation draws to a close and we all take a moment to appreciate the discovery of new illuminating perspectives on how to maintain reasonable levels of well-being both inside and outside University.

BILT Student Fellow, Owen Barlow

Humans of Bristol University, News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.

From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019