THE greatest fear for many new students teetering on the edge of their first time at university is not keeping up with the workload, or managing their money, but simply being lonely, the Revd Nick Griffin says.
Mr Griffin, Chaplain of Plymouth Marjon University (formerly the University of St Mark and St John), gets a ten-minute slot during the induction week for new students; and he puts more work into that ten minutes than any other ten minutes all year, trying to use it to overturn people’s ideas of what chaplaincy is, and how it can offer support to all students.
“New students are horrified [at the idea] of being lonely. But . . . if you hang out with us, you will make new friends. In the chaplaincy, we try to find ways to build relationships and communities,” he says.
Parties during freshers’ week, whether organised by the chaplaincies or other societies, are one way in which to make friends. But many universities and societies work hard to make sure students begin to settle before they arrive, sending out information about well-being and the services on offer.
The student movement Fusion has an app to help students find and link up with a church, in advance of turning up for their first term. The organisation’s Church Relations Developer, Katie MacLean, says: “If, as a new student, you sign up, you will get a link telling you what churches are there, and they get a notification to say you are coming. You can do it all from home, in advance, and it makes the transition so much less scary.
“Often the church will send someone out to meet you and welcome you, too; so you don’t have to walk in on your own the first time you attend. We have links with more than 2000 churches in university cities, all of which are excited about working with students.”
Finding a church in advance is often helpful for anxious parents, too. “The students and their parents know they are joining a community where they will be cared for. And they can be integrated in teams; so they don’t just stay in a student bubble, but become part of the church family,” Ms MacLean says.
University of WinchesterSafety net: a student visiting “The Zone” a one-stop-shop for support services at the University of WinchesterOn the the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship's (UCCF) website, students can be connected with their university’s Christian Union. Online resources are available, plus a welcome to CU events in freshers’ week, an introduction to local churches, and a free university edition of St Luke’s Gospel.
Freshers’ week has near-legendary status in some universities, but it can be an anxious time for students. The Chaplain to the University of Chester, Peter Jenner, says that he has to reassure many students that wild parties and clubbing isn’t the norm for all. “There are plenty of students who don’t fit that caricature, or that culture,” he says.
“Often freshers’ week is very alcohol fuelled,” Mr Griffin of Plymouth Marjorn acknowledges. But there are other options, too, including events organised by chaplaincies. At Plymouth Marjorn, this includes meet-ups such as fish and chips on the beach. “They aren’t religious events, but they are the first steps in building relationships,” he says. “I spoke to a student this year, who said if he hadn’t come to our chocolate party on the first night, he’d still be hiding in his room now, as he found it hard to talk to people. . . He now has a really solid group of friends.”
Christian Unions host their own events during freshers’ week, as do societies such as the Student Christian Movement (SCM), which has groups in an increasing number of universities.
The SCM’s national co-ordinator, Simon Densham, says its focus is on social justice and faith in action, and the society also runs campaigns for students to be involved in. Through its Facebook page, students can connect with fellow Christians, and can find out if others are going to the same university; churches and student groups can be found through the SCM Connect service.
SCM online provides weekly devotionals on a range of subjects, such as empowerment, small things, purpose, and quiet; each includes a Bible reading, a reflection, practical action, and a prayer. Its Going To University Guide, available to those who register with SCM Connect, gives advice on topics such as freshers’ week, money, washing machines, and reading the Bible, among others.
MANY universities go the extra mile for students coming from disadvantaged or challenging backgrounds. York St John University offers an early welcome week for students who have been in care, or for those who have complex needs such as autism or mental-health conditions. They tour the campus while it is quieter, and are shown the spaces they can use during term-time to withdraw, if they so need. There is a quiet garden, and a room in the chaplaincy that students can use for a nap, the Chaplain, the Revd Annie Rowley, says.
University of ExeterCaring for students: the Chaplaincy Hub at the University of ExeterThe University of Winchester is proud of its support for students who might feel marginalised, whether they come from army families, or care homes, or are carers themselves. It offers an orientation day for students with autism, and students with disabilities are contacted in advance to talk through campus layout and to try to solve any problems that may arise.
It also operates a “shadowing” scheme, in which senior staff shadow students to learn first-hand about their experiences. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Joy Carter, says: “I often pick someone with particular needs and go with them to classes, have a coffee, and try to find out how we can improve to meet their needs.”
Mature students are often also specially catered for, with many universities aware of the extra challenges they can face. At the University of Chester, for example, events are held for mature students, at which staff “encourage them that they have earned their place here,” Mr Jenner says. “They often lack the confidence of coping with study at first.” Winchester offers “Return to Study” courses for mature students, prior to them beginning their course.
DROP-OUT rates at university have risen over the last two years, and this has been sharpest for the most disadvantaged students. But, in general, students need a listening ear and extra support at some point during their time at university, be it for homesickness, relationship problems, work stress, bereavement, accommodation issues, or other problems. Chaplaincy departments offer opportunities to talk, and the chance to spend time in quiet spaces, often working closely with student-support services, and academic tutors.
Besides being places for support in moments of difficulties, chaplaincies — like churches — offer a meeting place for all. At the University of Chester, Mr Jenner says: “The chaplaincy centre is one of the few places on campus where people can meet others in different subjects, in different areas, and it is the only place where you can find students and staff meeting on equal terms. After our mid-week service, we have a meal, and it’s lovely to see students talking together as adults.”
istockphotoistockphotoThe University of Exeter is one of the fastest-growing universities in Europe, and its chaplaincy hub is developing with it: there are now 17 chaplains — representing many faiths and denominations — available to both students and staff. The Revd Chantal Mason, who heads the team, says chaplains are often called out for crisis situations, sometimes in the middle of the night when support is urgently needed, and also work to support students struggling with various problems.
“Students do find faith here, sometimes through a crisis, or a friend inviting them to something. Our space offers a space to build a community, across different years and subjects, and faith. It helps people find their own niche.”
UNIVERSITY student services provide a range of support options, too. Plymouth Marjon University offers a Listening Post counselling drop-in service, with trained volunteer listeners, for students to discuss whatever they are struggling with.
Head of student support, Jenny Barnicoat, says: “A campus is a microcosm of any town, with relationship break-downs, ill health, work stress. There has been an upturn in the number of students with mental-health concerns, which is true across the country. We continue to work hard, alongside chaplaincy, to destigmatise mental health. We want to work with people to stay well, not just be here when things go wrong.
“We track retention and progression of students through student-support services, and we know it makes a difference. We have a lot of students who use our services, including chaplaincy services, who would not have stayed if they didn’t have that additional support.”
Services available to students on campus can be comprehensive. The University of Chester’s provision includes access to subsidised childcare, study-skills support, welfare advice, and student mentors, among others. The student services available at York St John include a student health-centre, and appointments with a published writer, who can give advice on writing essays.
At the University of Winchester, Professor Carter says: “Pastoral support is linked through from student services, to chapel, to the academic side, too; so we have teachers who know the whole person. It means we are good on the retention of younger students, and mature students too. A lot of it is about listening one on one.”
Winchester is one of just two universities in the country — the other is Roehampton, London — to also have a Student Senate, which allows student to raise concerns directly with the university’s senior leadership team.
The director of student services at Winchester, Nicola Barden, says: “There is always someone to ask or somewhere to go, whether it is a housemate, or friend, or an academic tutor, or professional service. If [you] are worried, the message is: ‘do something’: phone a friend, sign up to learn the drums, tell your tutor if presentations make you anxious, talk to a counsellor, learn mindfulness, sit at a table with people you don’t know and say ‘hello’ (they have probably only just met each other, anyway), or offer a flatmate in halls a cup of coffee.
“It’s a time of life where everyone you meet is open to meeting you, too. And, if that in itself is overwhelming, then take your time. [There’s] nothing wrong with a duvet day. And then get back out there.”