“I am a part of the university”: Why universities offering non-traditional students extracurricular opportunities leads to higher levels of student engagement: a mature student’s perspective
Along the student journey, student engagement approaches, roles and projects offer the opportunities for non-traditional students to join the conversation, become part of educational development and work with staff as partners. This chapter will explore what student engagement in practice means to those in the thick of it, the mature students themselves. This was a position I was recently in myself and, in this chapter, I shall discuss and reflect upon how student engagement - and everything that goes along with that term - has influenced my higher education (HE) journey throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies; most notably, how my role as a Student Ambassador (SA) for my university has fostered engagement that has benefited both my overall experience and my university. I shall also discuss the viewpoints of and first-hand accounts by other mature students who worked as SAs, in order to understand what student engagement means for them as individuals and how it has shaped their own HE journeys. This includes stories and reflections that the students feel show their personal experience of engagement in practice, through working as SAs. I shall argue that engaging mature students in extracurricular opportunities such as SA roles can benefit everyone involved, and propose that there is no such thing as a ‘fixed notion of student engagement’; I shall explain why it almost certainly should be considered a dynamic and highly individualistic concept - especially in relation to non-traditional students.
If you had asked me at the start of my journey into either further or higher education what was meant by the term ‘student engagement’ I should have fumbled for an answer, as the concept was not something that I had thought about before. I’d likely have answered that student engagement meant a student who showed up to class, spoke in seminars, took notes and handed in assessments on time. During my interviews with other mature students, there was universal agreement that student engagement was not a common term for any of us initially. I suppose that I wasn’t wrong, with the answer I’d have given, as those four points may go some way to facilitate a student becoming engaged in her/his student journey, yet throughout the past several years I have certainly learnt that ‘student engagement’ as a concept is far more comprehensive than that and canmean different things to different individuals - to different students, if you will. It is therefore not easy to define.
Student engagement has been hard for me to define; it has also for some time been a contentious issue amongst academic practitioners. Krause (2005, p.3) describes it as "the time, energy and resources students devote to activities designed to enhance learning at university". Krause also suggests that those students whose experience demonstrated that they were actively involved in university life showed greater student engagement, higher levels of perceived satisfaction with their studies and higher levels of academic success; they were far more motivated to continue with their studies throughout their academic careers (op. cit., 2005). Although there has been a cultural shift in recent years, when student engagement was discussed in the past it was often defined in relation to the academic side of being a student. What is interesting is that, as both an undergraduate and postgraduate student, if I were to be measured against many of the criteria for the archetypal ‘engaged student’, according to many HE practitioners, I believe I should be considered very much an unengaged student. Contrarily, I believe that I was anything but unengaged and, throughout the rest of this chapter, I - as an engaged and empowered student who is part of the ‘University Community’ -detail why that was the case.
An individual is considered a mature student if s/he enters post-secondary education at age 21 or above (UCAS, 2019). I entered full-time post-secondary education, after several false starts throughout my late teens and early 20s, at the age of 28. I’d left school at 16: at the earliest opportunity, I’d had my form signed by all of my secondary school teachers and left the building. I’d always had a mixed experience of secondary education. On the one hand, when I put the effort in, I received very good grades. However, on the other, I was growing up as a gay teen in the late 1990s and early 2000s with all of the emotional turmoil and distraction this created. It was a time very different from now and, looking back, I can see that gaining a formal education was not a priority - my priority was finding my tribe and living the life that I had read about in magazines and guidebooks and that I had watched on television. The ground-breaking television series ‘Queer as Folk’ was a revelation to me. So it could be said that I was educating myself on what being gay meant and I was keen to learn - it just didn’t often translate to my classes during secondary school which to me were an inconvenience and something I could not wait to escape. I was not at all engaged in my formal education at this point.
I worked in a variety of jobs until my mid-to-late 20s, but throughout this period I knew that I wanted more for my life and I could not shake off the feeling that I had somehow ‘missed out’ on going to university. My sister put it in perspective when we were out for a meal one evening; she commented that, if I went back to study for a degree (I was 27 at the time), I’d probably still have around 40 years of employment once I had graduated... and was it not better to be working in something that I enjoyed? The wheels had been set in motion. I enrolled and studied for an HNC in Advertising and Public Relations at a further education (FE) college before applying - and receiving an offer - for university; I entered HE as a direct entrant into the second year. I completed my BA in Marketing Management with Consumer Studies in summer 2018 and my MSc in Intercultural Business Communication with Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in autumn 2019, at the age of thirty-three.
In the early months of my return to education, I had the goal of being what I considered the perfect student and tried valiantly to attend all classes, take notes in all classes and hand in all my assessments on time (perfect student engagement, right?). But in my reality - and I believe it was the reality of many mature students in the 2010s - life (together with trying to build a body of work that would be attractive to future employers) got in the way: I often did not attend class in person. I did not always have the mind-space to take coherent notes and, on more than one occasion, I handed in coursework past the official deadline. My striving for ‘student perfection’ was always doomed to fail and, during my first year at university, it led to many moments of ‘Is studying right for me?’ I compared myself to other younger students who seemed to be becoming, to my mind, ‘pillars of student engagement’ and felt inadequate by comparison.
As a self-funding mature student, I had to work. The members of my family were fantastically supportive, yet I did not want to rely on them fully. As a mature student, I also had - already in place when I re-entered education - a lifestyle that I did not want to lose and I had to work to afford to maintain this. It is well documented that students often have to combine studying with part-time work, owing to the mismatch between current student funding and the realistic cost of living (Devlin et al., 2008). However, although much of the literature on the topic suggests that a student’s working alongside her/his studies can have a negative impact on engagement, I got to thinking - could there also be positives to be gained from working alongside my studies? From my own experience, I’d argue that there are.
What set off my interest in student engagement - and in hindsight ensured that I was indeed an engaged student (albeit in my own way) and did not drop out of university - was applying for and beginning my role as a Student Ambassador (SA) within my university. Many higher education institutions (HEIs) have student ambassador schemes or similar. An SA at my institution is a paid role within the university on a zero-hour contract. Once appointed, a student is added to the email pool of ambassadors and various departments within the university will email the ambassador pool when they have ad hoc paid work available. This role was very varied and could consist of a few hours working at an open day, working for multiple weeks on student card production and the much sought-after, recurring and regular work in a department as its dedicated ‘Student Assistant’. Zero-hour contracts are a contentious issue, but, in this context, they were right for me - I worked often when my studies were quieter and worked less when my studies were more demanding. The flexibility of such a role was favourable.
I remember vividly that, just before finding out that I’d received the role, I called my family and told them that because university simply was not for me
(that old chestnut!) and because I was struggling with the coursework, I was considering leaving and returning to the world of work. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that being offered the SA role changed everything for me. Very quickly, I got to know the university staff and realised that we had more in common than not and that my input counted. An interesting point is that I thought that the scheme was probably more suited to more traditional (i.e. younger) students but I applied regardless.
From personal experience, and from talking to other mature students, it can be difficult (yet not impossible) to make friends as a mature student in university. We often do not stay in student accommodation and lectures are far too big and anonymous to meet anyone. In many HEIs within the United Kingdom (UK), there is limited face-to-face class time and students are ushered in and out of oversubscribed classrooms - hardly conducive for meeting new people and fostering relationship-building. This, in recent years, has been frequently the state of play for many institutions. It was therefore often during tutorials that I - and many mature students - would try to meet other students. I am a sociable person, but, for many mature students, doing this can be terrifying. I think that, early on during the tutorial, we tend to look for someone who, being around our age, seems the kind of person towards whom we could gravitate. If the whole tutorial group appears much younger, it can feel very isolating. Becoming an SA gave me another opportunity to meet others within the university - not just other mature students who had been drawn to a working role within the institution, but also staff members - who ultimately became good friends. Having these relationships made me feel a part of the university and made it far less of an intimidating place. The perceived barriers between me and the institution had been broken down and I felt that my experience and what I had to offer mattered.
The role of SA, and more specifically the regular paid role that I was now being offered, allowed me to discontinue external part-time work that constantly pulled me away from the university. I think that this allowed me to become far more engaged in university life. I now was not just arriving on campus for class, but I was within the university most days working on various ambassadorial roles. Because I was engaged with several departments, I felt more involved in what was going on from day-to-day in the university and I’d often attend daily events with other ambassadors or staff members. Had I done this before the ambassador role, it would have made me feel even more isolated and lonely, as I’d not have known anyone there. There is truth in the saying that you can feel the loneliest in the busiest room. Being an SA, who through ambassador responsibilities was on campus more often, made me feel connected as a student to other people as never before.
My role as an SA also made me feel far more connected to the university than I ever had been. I worked at a variety of events conducted by the university, including open days, public lectures and charity events. Both members of staff and students began to recognise my face and we’d often chat at more than one event. This was transformative for me, as I no longer felt like just a number withinthe huge student body. I felt vital and this led to a sense of belonging within the university that would go some way to ensuring that I completed my studies. It started to feel more like home - a comfortable space. As a mature student during my first few months at university, I’d felt like a small fish in a big sea - a feeling I’d not had for a long time and one really difficult to alleviate. However, working as an SA helped with this greatly and my engagement levels soared. Bianca, a mature student who also worked as an SA, agrees; she commented, “Z would have not, as a mature student, been that engaged if it wasn’t for the student ambassador scheme. The scheme kept me engaged and I developed a lot from it - mostly confidence in my abilities that has translated to my academic work".
I was asked by a member of the Student Recruitment Team to travel with her to Ireland to promote the university at an event for potential students. I’d eventually take this trip a number of times through my time at the university and it really defined my place as a student. I remember that, the first time I presented at the event, I was very nervous and really researched the university so that I could present the facts confidently. Throughout the years, I grew more and more confident and, during my final trip to Ireland in this capacity, I could, when discussing all the opportunities (such as the travel that I’d enjoyed throughout my studies and grabbed with both hands), clearly see how far I had come as a student and how engaged I really had become. By presenting what opportunities were available to potential students at my institution, I realised the extent of my own engagement - although it had not been so much with the more traditional aspects of what university life represents. I owe a lot to this staff member who saw something in me early on and gave me this opportunity to develop.
I have no doubt that the SA role and my subsequent feeling a part of the university in that way are why I did not leave the university during several tough times, both connected to my studies and personal. I knew the staff because I had worked for them and didn’t want to let them, or myself, down. In fact, working as an SA allowed me the opportunity to meet a great variety of members of staff - including members of the academic skills team, who, because barriers had been broken down, ultimately helped me improve my written coursework grades. I met staff who coached me on presenting skills, since many of my earlier roles, as I have mentioned, involved presenting at various events. This coaching in presentation also led me to feel far more comfortable when presenting during modules, which in turn led to higher grades for this type of assessment. Stewart, a mature student who also worked as a Student Ambassador, agrees that this type of speaking opportunity can benefit a mature student. Stewart commented that ‘‘‘'through an opportunity to speak at Murrayfield Stadium to prospective students who were also veterans about my return to education, I was able to increase my confidence in public speaking which had a marked effect on my presentation grades at university and ultimately my engagement lever.
Towards the final year of my undergraduate programme, and of my role as an SA, I was offered the opportunity to step across into a more regular role as a Widening Participation Ambassador (WPA) for the Widening Participation Team
(WPT) within the university; in particular, to work on a specific digital transition and engagement project for incoming students, which would ultimately become known as the Establish project (Edinburgh Napier University, 2019). I wanted to feel as prepared as possible, as I knew there was a level of responsibility involved in this type of role, and I therefore began to research student engagement in depth, as it was a dominant term in the sector and within my university. Doing so allowed me to see how far I had come since those early days of wanting to leave university quietly and without trace. My research confirmed my feeling that, just because I was not engaging in many of the traditional aspects of student engagement - being a part of a society, being involved in the student union or socialising with course mates - I was in fact a very engaged student, but in a different way from the norm.
The project that I worked on for the WPT was a success and I continued to build the programme throughout my postgraduate studies. Ultimately, alongside the team, I developed Establish into a fixture of the university’s Widening Participation strategy and nurtured a sub-team of five other WPAs to continue the work, as the need for such a sub-team had grown. I am very proud of the Establish project and feel again that being involved in such an extracurricular initiative, albeit still within the university, led to greater engagement for me in relation to my postgraduate degree. I also continued to invite the Establish student team to student engagement events and conferences and it felt rewarding to hear their interest in student engagement grow - in particular, one student, who commented that learning about why student engagement is important had led her to focus on being more engaged in her own journey. That I also wrote an evaluative study of the Establish project for my MSc dissertation really does go to show how my part-time engagement and employment within the university shaped my academic work.
What has been described as evidence of an engaged student also now applied to me: I was feeling far more comfortable within the university, my grades were improving and I was feeling much more motivated to continue with my education. My new role with the WPT also opened many new doors for me, including being introduced to the Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE) Network, which furthered my knowledge about student engagement practice. I am now a Student Committee Member and am actively involved with the network on a continuing basis. I also felt that, by working consistently and having university staff members comment that my past work experience was an asset to both the institution and my academic work, I had been able to retain some semblance of my life as it had been before I returned to education. It made the journey far more comfortable, relatable and enjoyable.
In conclusion, I think my story, along with the input from other mature students, is a perfect example of why one size does not fit all when it comes to student engagement. I was a very engaged student, but not in the traditional way, and I should not have fitted what conventional opinion sees as an engaged student, especially in the view of some in the university community who focus heavily on the academic side of the university experience. However, university to me was never about getting the best grades. It was about social mobility and opening up my horizons to new perspectives and experiences. Being engaged in university developments had the same outcome as many other opportunities often cited as purposeful, such as those relating to student voice and partnership. I think universities should be creating many more opportunities for non-traditional students to join projects within their walls - projects that do not necessarily relate to their course - and I’m sure that funding bodies should be supporting this with adequate funding.
I think my experience shows that being engaged as an SA as a mature student allowed me and the other students interviewed for this chapter an opportunity to deploy skills that we brought into the university to foster for ourselves a greater sense of belonging and ultimately improve engagement for us as individuals. This type of opportunity can benefit both the student and the institution and was a main factor in my not leaving university before I had completed both of my degrees.
By building a community that embraces student involvement in shaping the university experience for others, an HEI will create fertile ground for a diversely engaged student body. We are individuals within this body and this community, and our sense of engagement is individualistic; being able to access the potential benefits - for staff in educational developments and for students in being able to thrive - therefore depends on having a range of options for engagement that will suit everyone.
This paper has discussed and argued for one approach, borne out by personal experience, to engage non-traditional students such as mature students during their HE journey, but the possibilities are potentially endless. How do we ensure that non-traditional students are considered when planning student engagement strategy? I argue that we need to ask them, work with them and be inspired by them to facilitate positive engagement for all.
Devlin, M., James, R. and Grigg, G., 2008. Studying and Working: A national study of student finances and student engagement. Tertiary Education and Management, 14(2). Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/13583880802053044 ”
Edinburgh Napier University, 2019. ESTABLISH: Who better to talk to about being a student than an actual current student? Retrieved from: www.napier.ac.uk/study-with-us/widening-participation/students-helping-students (accessed 8 July 2019).
Krause, K., 2005. Understanding and promoting student engagement in university learning communities. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. Retrieved from: wtvw.liberty.edu/media/3425/ teaching_resources/Stud_eng.pdf
UCAS, 2019. Mature Students’ Guide. Retrieved from: www.ucas.com/file/35436/ download?token=2Q6wiw-L (accessed 8 July 2019).