In the next instalment of the Decolonising the Curriculum interview series, Student Fellow Rhona talks to Nana Agyare – University of Bristol alumnus, previous Graduate Intern with the Student Inclusion Team and current Global Lounge Assistant with the International Office.
In this interview, Nana discusses her experiences with the Student Inclusion Team, how she understands decolonising and how the work of the Inclusion Team relates to decolonising. She also outlines what academics can do to encourage decolonising within their school and draws on her experiences of being both a student and staff member at the university to provide insights on how the university and academics can reinforce an effective, communicative relationship with students in the decolonising process.
Here are some key extractions from our conversation.
[Note, in the podcast, Nana refers to the Race and Equality Series but means the Anti-Racism Webinar series]
Rhona: What is the Student Inclusion Team? What sort of things do they do?
Nana: TheStudent Inclusion Team was set up to help traditionally marginalised students, so that while starting university, their university experience is as inclusive as possible so that they can really get the best degrees that they deserve. Everyone arrives at university with much the same academic background, but obviously from different social backgrounds. It is the social backgrounds that tend to be the difference in the awarding gaps. So, the inclusion team helps people who are mature students or BAME students or international students or students who’ve just had a hard time growing up. So, there’s a Bristol scholars programme and there’s also a peer support programme which helps with peer assisted study and also the mental [health] scheme that first years get. So, there’s just a lot of helping students settle into Bristol properly. They also have a massive focus on belonging. So, that’s one of the reasons why there is [a] higher dropout rate or awarding gaps, rewarding degree classification gaps. The students that I just mentioned…whilst they’re at university they don’t tend to feel [that they belong] to the university because they aren’t the typical traditional student.
Rhona: Sounds amazing. What was your role within the team and what issues did you focus on specifically?
Nana: So generally, in my role I worked a lot with constant communication stuff, especially because this year has been online, there is an even bigger barrier between students and the university and engaging with university activities. So, I really [worked] with the BAME Success Programme, helping a lot with social media. I worked a lot on Wechat which is predominantly for Chinese international students. [I worked] to get the word out there about different events that the university has going on and different opportunities specific to their groups. So, there were like some scholarships or certain events that would only be on for certain students. So just pushing the word out about that.
I also helped the BAME Success Advocates with the work that they are currently doing, assisting them with any projects and events they had on. [I] also assisted my manager Robiu [Salisu] with any events he had on. So, I was helping in the background with different things like the Anti-racism Webinar series. [This was a] four-week series which has Judith Squires and some people from the [Anti-Racism Steering Group]. I was in charge of the Belonging Fund – basically a fund for student to apply for to put on events which increase belonging between students. For example, there was an event we had on specifically target [for] black, female travelers. [I helped] them with any background information that they might not have access to. So that is what I worked on.
Rhona: That sounds so interesting and so many different aspects of your role as well. What is the success program again?
Nana: The BAME Success Programme is a be more empowered success programme and [it] basically targets students from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds – basically non-white students. It focuses on belonging, which is what I mentioned before. All these advocates are student workers.
There are three aspects of the programme. So, you have Reviewing, Events and Belonging. The Review team will have two students in each faculty working with academics on making the curriculum more decolonised. You’ll have some students working with academics on creating focus groups or trying to get more ethnic minority participation in different opportunities, like some mentorship programmes. The events team puts on large events for the students which focuses on the sense of belonging. Basically, Events and Belonging have merged into one because most things have been online. But in the past, there were more large-scale events which were typically more flagships. So, the Anti-racism Webinar series would have been Event programme and then the Belonging Team [would have had] regular Belonging Projects. Students can come and can just chat about different problems that they have. So, for example there is Black Men and Women Talk. There was also Food For Thought which focused on [those from] South Asian backgrounds and particularly female [students from] South Asian backgrounds.
[It means that] people from those different backgrounds have a safe space. They can come and chat and offload and it’s just a brilliant, safe space for students to have. Whilst I was a student, I loved going to those events because you’d leave feeling so much more validated in whatever you were feeling. You’d be like ‘am I the only one feeling this way?’ But then you go, and someone will bring something up which reminds you of your personal experience. Those types of things help with students feel belonging to the university because they have other people who may have gone through things. Also, going to these sessions you know of more university initiatives that are going on. You’re more involved in the student community and you just feel more at home with the university.
Rhona: That sounds amazing. It’s like a community which is really nice. [Focusing] specifically on decolonising the curriculum which we have mentioned already, I [thought] we could start by getting your definition of decolonising the curriculum and how you understand decolonising the curriculum.
Nana: I partially understand decolonising the curriculum as complete removal of all the racial and ethnic barriers there are to academia [to allow] for people to engage and to thrive in academia.
So, this includes obviously the academia itself, making sure the content can be as inclusive as possible and as diverse as possible so that you’re hearing from different voices. This is tough with, for example, things like history as there weren’t always opportunities from a diverse background to their opinions on different things. But I think…starting now [is important]. Things have already started but I think by pushing more [allows for effective teaching and learning] because people will understand things from a more diverse point of view.
Decolonising the curriculum counts on social issues as well. So, people from poorer backgrounds have fewer resources and less access to books, to the internet, to everything that you could have to thrive at university. Even just time. People from more marginalised backgrounds tend to have less access to time to focus on academia. So, it is also about removing that for people. These tend to disproportionately affect people from a non-white background in the UK, so that’s where the racial and ethnic aspect comes in. By doing these things, you in turn benefit white students who also come from disadvantaged backgrounds so it’s not really just about helping or boosting people from ethnic minority communities, it is also about helping poorer white students.
[But also decolonising benefits] wealthier white students [because they] get to learn about more things because the curriculum is more diverse. When you are being taught about different histories from different perspectives or sciences from different perspectives, you get to understand things more and you become a better student. So [inclusion, decolonising] helps everyone in the end.
Rhona: That’s really important. Decolonising is an enriching process because it provides spaces for so many different perspectives and enriches [students]. How would you see the student inclusion team and the work they do relating to decolonising the curriculum?
Nana: I’ll focus firstly on like the BAME steam. The Inclusion Officer [Robiu]’s work mainly focuses on overseeing the BAME Success Programme, which has those three branches that I previously talked about [Reviewing, Events and Belonging]. All of the work [of the BAME Success Programme], even the small social events, help to decolonise the curriculum because people can come to university and feel more at home and want to carry on studying and they’ll more likely stay in education [and academia].
There is [also] this focus on academics, trying to let the lecturers know that they probably shouldn’t be saying slurs during their lectures. For example, I was working quite closely with a BAME Success Advocate called Shannon who is a history undergraduate student. She has just completed an amazing research project in history on how they can decolonise the curriculum and how they can go on to create a decolonising the curriculum working group for history. So in this project, she talked to BAME students as well as white students and got their perspectives on history and what they liked about being educated in Bristol and what they think could be improved – this [was] specifically on the decolonising aspect. [This focused on] making sure there’s more named history of people from non-white backgrounds…in the past, there [has been] all these lists of names of white people who went to [e.g.] Kenya and did XYZ. But then Kenyans who were working for decolonising or independence, they won’t be named. [The names] and the people [who are studied] and the projects and modules within history, even if it a global history unit, there will be a Eurocentric perspective on it. But it is like, ‘this is global history’, we really need to learn about global history from the narratives of those countries and what they were doing instead of what colonisers found over there. That is what Robiu is working on essentially.
There is also the SU decolonising the curriculum working groups that Robiu is now assisting with [to ensure] sustainable working groups. [This will include] constantly checking in on the schools and faculties to make sure that they are hitting their targets, that students do feel more included in the curriculum and that students can see their histories being portrayed and portrayed well and properly. [This is] instead of it just being one focus group and then [the issue of decolonising] not being touched on again because I feel like sometimes as a student, it can feel you’re giving so much emotional labor and you don’t actually end up seeing the final product of it. You don’t see where it has gone to, you’re just offloading and nobody is actually doing anything. So the creation of these working groups is really good for there to be a sustainable and regulatory body on the school’s decolonising practices.
There has been [attempts for a decolonising working group] in geography and there’s also one that has already been set up and well established in medicine. When you think of decolonising, you only [tend to] think of the social sciences or history or something. But medicine is so important because you’re sending these medics, these doctors out into hospitals to treat a wide range of people and really, they actually only know how to treat some 60% of their patients. They don’t know what eczema looks like on 40% of their patients. They don’t know what all these different medical terms or illnesses will actually affect and manifest in different [ways] in different people. So, things like ‘your skin should turn blue’, me as a black woman, my skin doesn’t turn blue. How will a doctor know that?
As I mentioned before, we’re creating better students and [a better] Bristol University by focusing on decolonising. You’re bringing people out with more knowledge of the world, and we live in an increasingly globalized society, you won’t just come across anyone that looks the same now, especially in the UK. So, it is good to be able to leave university with the actual complete education and as well-rounded education as there possibly can be.
Rhona: That is so true. What do you think are some practical ways we can decolonise the curriculum? How can academics use what the Student Inclusion Team are doing [when looking at] their curriculum and their modules?
Nana: If I talk more widely on the student inclusion team [regarding] the mature students. Sometimes they don’t have the time to do assignments, or they need lecturers who are more accommodating because they typically have career duties or have dependents, so making sure when you do give work out or creating a timetable for your teaching, you need to take into context as many students as possible. Or if a student does come back to you and say I need X amount of time, [it is about] being willing and flexible and understanding that not everyone comes from your specific background. They do need different adjustments. [These adjustments and flexibility and understanding are needed to ensure inclusion at all levels and can be applied to other marginalized communities within the university].
You will find and know the people who engage in [decolonising issues] are [more likely] to be from specific backgrounds, people who are naturally more inclined to care about decolonising. But I think that it is great that we have everyone who cares about decolonising the curriculum working towards. Because what we need is everyone working towards [decolonising]. It’s about making sure that you get your colleagues who may not be as willing to change their own curriculum or their learning objectives to evolve with the time. I think it’s about doing that teaching of [other colleagues] on behalf of those students who are from more marginalised backgrounds. A lot of the emotional labor does fall on [students] because it is something that usually personally affects them, it is hard to always be the person always giving the information and trying to change things. They already do so much, most of them are students who are working towards decolonisation. So, academics [need to] take on some of that labor and encourage coworkers to be more accommodating to other people and have more wider readings on your topics.
Rhona: That plays on quite nicely to my other question about why you think it is so important that the university and students work together in the decolonising process?
Nana: [Decolonising] is personal to a lot of people. It is tough. So, there needs to be a sharing of the ‘burden’. Also, I think as anyone who is a student knows, there is only so much you can do. Only so much talking, so much petitioning, so much social media. All that you can do without actual participation from the university. Now that I am a staff member and even from being a part of the BME Network committee, I saw a lot more of what the university was doing. But I think the university needs to be better at communicating this back to students. [The work that the university are doing] does not always reach the students, you normally just get the bigger picture which can seem quite tokenistic. So, [there needs to be] more in depth [communication between the university and students] – ‘we are going this for you, we are doing that for you’. Because I think as a new staff member, I realise so much more what the university is doing, and I’ll tell my friends who are currently students and they’re like ‘I never knew that’. It is a massive shame. I think the university needs to…find a better way to communicate to students.
So, mainly sharing the ‘burden’, better communication and always evolving. Once you’ve reached a target, make a new one.
Rhona: Yeah, I think that’s important because I think a lot of the time, [the communication between university and students] can seem quite abstract. Specifically saying ‘this is being done’ and seeking feedback from students and learning from that feedback [is needed].
Nana: The BAME Success Programme came from the 2017 student research by the SU, and it was about ethnic minority student experiences whilst they were at university and that brought out the issue of the lack of belonging [to the university]. So that is where the university has been working towards for the past few years. More recently, a new survey came out targeted towards non-white students about their recent experiences and how they found the Success Programme and hopefully, this goes on to become a new published set of research, which the university again will work on and improve on and create new initiatives from. So, there are some exciting processes in the works, but it is just again about translating that back to students that this is happening and why it is happening.
Rhona: It is an ongoing process, and it is consistently evolving and is consistently happening. Do you have any final points to conclude?
Nana: The work of student success advocates is amazing, and they put so much effort into their different projects and you can really see that translated in how the students who participate benefit from it. Also, Robiu and his work is just so incredible, working with so many different departments to put on things for a wide range of student cohorts. All the inclusion team do that as well. They work for a crazy number of students, and they put their all into working for them. So, it is amazing.
Rhona: It is amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me and for this interesting discussion. The Student Inclusion Team and Advocates are so important in making sure different perspectives are heard and that is translated into the university [practice] then translated back to students again – to make sure it is a very collaborative process.
If you have any questions, please do get in touch!