Even students with apparently modest talents can be persuasive in their roles in schools outreach, so be sure not to underestimate them, says Mary Stirling, project officer with Aspire (Aimhigher South East London) who has researched the impact of ambassadors on those without a tradition of higher education in the family.
It is important to realise that undergraduates have a wealth of skills to offer beyond a knowledge of their own speciality. She suggests involving them in planning meetings and in running sessions as well as simply giving talks.
But you mustn't overestimate their abilities either. Stephanie Lee, widening participation officer at Manchester University, says it is tempting to expect students to react to a situation as a member of staff would, when they don't have the same skills and experience.
Michelle Austin, Aimhigher Peninsula Programme co-ordinator for the student ambassador scheme, says: “We always say in training that they are students first and student ambassadors second. They put into it as much as they want to.” For this reason, it is vital to monitor closely how ambassadors are doing. “If it is not working out, you need say something,” she emphasizes.
Bethany George, a final-year student in leisure and tourism with public relations at the College of St Mark and St John and a student ambassador for three years, says it is important for her not to feel pressured. Her scheme organisers have a copy of her timetable and won't bother calling if she has a lecture scheduled during an event.
Stirling suggests giving ambassadors contracts for a term. This gives them status as employees and you the responsibility for training, monitoring and paying them. Austin says you must pay them on time and pay them extra if they take on additional responsibilities.
It is essential to interview prospective candidates thoroughly and to conduct criminal records checks. Jane Browne, director of post-16 studies at Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham, recommends choosing students who are lively, approachable and interested in the pupils they are addressing.
Lee says students need to know that they will liaise with a variety of groups, including parents and teachers. She stresses the importance of training. Weaker ambassadors often benefit from being paired up with more experienced ones, she says.
Austin says that targeting students appropriately is key. This could mean matching those studying sports science with, say, people interested in studying the subject at university. Or it could mean matching them with people from similar backgrounds.
George says her best experiences have been when she has returned to her former school. “I always get a good reception because I'm one of the team,” she says. Browne says her pupils were not put off by ambassadors who were much older or from a different country so long as they were approachable and enthusiastic. But she says the pupils responded especially well to students closer in age.
Stirling’s research, carried out last year, found that it was vital to brief students so that they knew what kind of pupils they would be speaking to, why a particular activity had been organised and what their role in it would be.
She found that ambassadors were seen as sources of information on all kinds of issues to do with university, so their knowledge of matters such as financial arrangements and the application system needed to be up to date.
Austin says it is important to make students feel they are part of a scheme that has a buzz. This means keeping in touch with them, making sure they are still interested in being an ambassador and keeping them informed.
George says you have to build a cohesive team: get existing ambassadors to help train new ones and make initial training residential so that they build relationships. Parties and other social events also boost team spirit.
Finally, academics should try working alongside student ambassadors to organise events, Stirling says. “It helps them to see the students in a completely new light.”