Student Voice

BILT Student Fellow Reflections: Owen Barlow

This year Bristol University students came on leaps and bounds when it came down to finding innovative ways of steering the wellbeing agenda for struggling students. After reaching out to a number of students leading admirable initiatives, from Men’s Talk Clubs and Peer Support Networks for bereaved students, the inspiring students who shared their stories with the audiences of the ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities in Higher Education’ podcast taught me a lot about the perseverance of student’s struggling to implement their motions into the university machinery. But extracurricular activities was not enough, and students were concerned that they were jumping through too many hoops to implement their support networks. It seemed that the ambitious goal of comprehensively embedding wellbeing content, practice, and new measures into the curriculum was going to be a challenge. Nevertheless, I was willing to hit the ground running and see what traction could be made.

Where to begin with a project as far-reaching and as serious as wellbeing and the curriculum? To address this question, I started the journey by reading up on mental health literacy and some of the emotional intelligence indicators we can draw out in the language used by staff and students. These findings inspired me to start a podcast centred around “Voicing Vulnerability” and how to communicate discomfort in a comfortable and hopefully cathartic way with peers.

I also surveyed the literature on the highly complex calculations done to measure young people’s wellbeing. It took some time to uncover the underlying factors threatening young people’s wellbeing. Some of the plausible sources of mental health difficulties among the student body involved but were not reserved to, substance misuse, the diminishing sense of belonging at University, disconnecting from home life (family and friends), and financial pressures. In light of the wide range of concerns for student wellbeing and how we might develop a curriculum informed by these concerns, I reached out to more stakeholders and voices to mull the wellbeing question over on podcasts, through interviews for the BILT blog, and during panel discussions at a public conference.

After hosting a number of eye-opening consultations with staff and students addressing these concerns, I saw that there were a number of different avenues we could go down to embed wellbeing into the curriculum. Some obvious strategies like implementing an in-person and online “Science of Happiness” course were cherished by students and staff. Similarly, the co-development of the Bristol Wellbeing Conference with the SU Wellbeing Network also represented another tangible way of engaging staff and students in questions about wellbeing in Higher Education in more comfortable, non-judgemental, and informal settings.

Some easier and potentially more clear-cut mechanisms for ensuring the curriculum could become more well-being friendly were moving some of the administrative barriers and bureaucratic resistance preventing students from taking their own initiative to develop peer support networks. I became increasingly interested in how we could enable more choice and agency when students were electing their courses and I was grateful to receive an invitation to present on the topic at the University of Winchester.

From my conversations, observations, and research I found the need for a “sense of belonging and relatedness” matched with the scarcity of community spaces for staff and students to connect with one another to be a deep concern. After appreciating the pastoral services and community-oriented activities and projects offered by the Multifaith Chaplaincy, I realised how supportive social environments on campus were essential for self-esteem, confidence, and trust-building for many students.

Other strategies I conceived and introduced staff members to concerned how academics could tailor more wellbeing-related content (theory, history, and science) and practice (voluntary action and community engagement) into their curriculum.

Some less obvious, albeit vitally important, strategies like creating learning activities that foster interpersonal connection and fun into the learning experience were recognised by academics I consulted in the Law Faculty. It seems that the high reports of loneliness among Bristol students ought to prompt us into action against loneliness and social isolation and should inform how we design a curriculum suited to the psychosocial needs of our current and incoming student body. The perspectives on Higher Education and wellbeing I encountered during this project have been enriching. I thoroughly enjoyed mediating between a multitude of approaches to pressing questions on student mental health in boardroom meetings and I now believe enabling student inclusion and empowering student voice is possible. Thank you to the BILT team for the insight into implementing change at the University – over and out, Owen.

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