The supercool need not apply

July 21, 2006

A student ambassador can make all the difference when it comes to persuading a ten-year-old to consider university. So, pick candidates for the role with care, advises Harriet Swain, and monitor progress

That a young undergraduate could persuade a ten-year-old to think about one day applying to university astonishes you. His essays hardly demonstrate great persuasive powers.

Maybe so, but never underestimate what a student ambassador can do, 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.

She says it is important to realise that undergraduates have a wealth of skills and experience to offer beyond knowledge of their own speciality and suggests involving them in planning meetings and in running sessions as well as simply giving talks.

But you mustn't overestimate their abilities. 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 just 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, through feedback forms from schools and by talking to them. "You need to keep on top of it," she says. "If it is not working out, you need to have that discussion and say something."

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 into working. 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. "If they do the work for you, you have to pay them properly."

Stirling says 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, says that when choosing ambassadors you have to make sure that they are lively, approachable and interested in the pupils they are addressing. "You don't want anyone so supercool that they won't actually speak to 17-year-olds, who are definitely uncool and not sure how to handle themselves," she says.

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 from the beginning so they have confidence in what they are doing. Weaker ambassadors often benefit from being paired up with more experienced ones, she says, and should be given smaller groups to address before graduating to a whole class.

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. You also need to make sure that they are clear about what they are selling. In some cases, they will be promoting the university in general, in others, it will be their subject or their institution. They need to have a clear job description.

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 did not seem phased 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, showed that it was important for ambassadors to plan activities in advance with the teachers and liaison workers so that the teachers and liaison workers felt some ownership. It was also vital to brief students thoroughly 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. This could also help dispel any worries they had.

Stirling found that ambassadors were seen as sources of information on all kinds of issues to do with university, so they needed to know what they were talking about and their knowledge of financial arrangements and the application system needed to be up to date.

Stirling says the most effective way of using ambassadors appeared to be following up one-off events with longer term relationships with pupils in a particular school, such as mentoring.

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. "Ambassadors must be at ease with each other," she says. So, if they attend an event together, they should not have to get to know each other as well as the schoolchildren they have come to speak to.

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."

Further information

Aimhigher's practitioners' website, www.aimhigher.ac.uk/practitioner/home

TOP TIPS

Don't overestimate or underestimate your ambassadors

Don't pressurise them

Target them carefully

Make sure they know what they are talking about

Build a happy team

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