How students are helping to shape University-led and peer support for students with care experience
Sam Upton, President of the Strathclyde Care Experienced & Estranged Students Society, shares her thoughts on the support on offer to students with care experience at the University of Strathclyde.
The Strathclyde Cares team was set up by the University of Strathclyde to support care experienced and estranged students through a number of initiatives, including a mentoring scheme matching students with volunteer staff members who they can turn to throughout their degree, and by allocating a named Care Experience Advisor offering pre- and post-application support, plus support with accommodation and finances.
Strathclyde Care Experienced & Estranged Students Society
Our student-led university society is half support network and half social club and offers a welcoming, inclusive space for students with care experience and estranged students. These terms describe students who have experience of care, and may have less or sometimes no contact with their families. Some people may not realise they are care experienced, and why they should be ‘ticking the box’ to say they’re care experienced when applying to college and university through UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) as it helps them access the support they are entitled to.
The Society receives some funding for its activities from Strathclyde Student Union, and a staff member from the Union’s Widening Access team is dedicated to supporting the Society.
Connecting with care experienced students and spreading the word about support
Recently, the Care Experienced & Estranged Students Society had a stall at the University’s annual Freshers’ Fair showcasing Strathclyde’s clubs and societies to new students, and last month, the Society hosted a Transitions Event for new care experienced students to inform them of the support that’s available through the University, as well as all the activities the Society offers.
The Society has given me some fantastic opportunities, for example, I’ve discussed the benefits of the mentor scheme to staff, sharing my perspective and helping them understand the unique needs of care experienced students starting university. The University has a lot of support in place, from finance and accommodation, to counselling – which care experienced students get prioritised for, as well as for hardship funding, but many are unaware of what they are entitled to.
The Society has around 30-40 members, who vote on how funding is spent for activities. These include outings and activities – we went kayaking in summer, for example – as well as coming together on days which may be difficult such as Mothers’ Day. Our Christmas social is an incredibly important one, because it gives the care experienced community an opportunity to come together at a time when they might feel vulnerable.
The Christmas presents we get from the Union and the Widening Access team mean a lot – last year we received gifts to help with self-care, including a hot chocolate kit, Christmas card, and vouchers. We always look forward to them!
Outside of socials and meetings, the Society keeps in touch with members through our Instagram page, a regular newsletter, and a Discord chat (an instant messaging platform) which is a safe space – people can ask questions, get peer support or just vent, anonymously if they prefer. We also use the Discord chat for feedback about recent activities and what members would like us to organise, for sharing opportunities to advocate, and to pass on any paid opportunities to share views and gain experience.
I got involved with the Society in my first year when I decided to go along to a Strathclyde Cares meeting, which all students with care experience get invited to. The meetings are an opportunity for all care experienced and estranged students to voice their thoughts on the support and activities at Strathclyde.
Improving support at Strathclyde and beyond
We feel very comfortable giving feedback to Strathclyde Cares, like asking for updates on measures or changes students and the Society have raised. We’ve also given advice to other colleges and universities keen to improve their corporate parenting strategies and improve support for care experienced students, presenting about how to meet the needs of care experienced students and helping them to turn ideas that are well-intentioned but may still be missing student input into more practical help.
There’s lots of support already in place at the University, but I’d like to see more and always have ideas about things that could be changed. A future focus for me is post-graduation support, as many care experienced students don’t have the safety net of being able to move back home while they job hunt after graduation. This could look like dedicated financial support immediately after finishing, but also beyond this whilst graduates search for a job. Grants towards graduation gown hire and photography are already offered to Strathclyde students, but this is a huge expense to mark an important milestone which many institutions don’t yet consider. One university offers students free accommodation for up to a year after graduating, which may not be possible for all universities, but could inspire organisations to think big. I also think we should be offered more intensive careers service support when we graduate – I’m picturing a package including this and other advice and funding being offered to all care experienced students finishing their degree.
In the meantime, we keep asking our members for their thoughts on improving support and pass this feedback on to Strathclyde Cares. Naturally, big changes can come with some barriers to implementation, but the University is always open to communication and wants to take our views into account, and I think that Strathclyde is definitely leading the way with support.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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