Over the two days of this visit I also discussed the new project that MMU has introduced for First in Family students called The FirstGen Scheme. This is a flagship project that has only commenced in the last two years and adopts a whole of student life cycle approach to supporting FiF students beginning at the pre-access stage and continuing as they move through their degree and also post-graduation. I spoke with Helen Lord (Transition and Peer Support Manager) and Peter Riley (Head of Widening Participation) at MMU and between them they provided a very deep understanding of the program and how it had evolved. The FirstGen Scheme was set up in recognition of the large number of FiF students who access MMU, most of whom commute to the campus or live nearby, MMU’s student population is highly intersected and Peter explained that many students report that they attend this university as they have a sense of ‘feeling more comfortable’ there compared to other HE options.
The FirstGen Scheme engages with FiF students in the final years of their schooling and then provides ‘wrap around services’ to support this cohort as they move through their degree. The types of additional supports include pre-access (summer school) workshops on preparing for HE, networking with employers and alumni during their degree and then post-graduation support for employment. Interestingly this program is partially funded by MMU alumni many of whom are FiF to graduate university as well – this ‘giving back’ is not only financial (participants receive a 1,000 pound bursary) but also project benefactors are requested to volunteer their time to both mentor FiF students and also attend social/networking events. The First Gen scheme is clearly framed within a celebratory discourse and as Helen explained: ‘we try to promote the scheme as something unique’ , later elaborating that students are encouraged to feel they are part of something special. This positive discourse is echoed in the publicity around the program which I came across in various mediums – including a pin that Peter wore to the interview:
Peter explained that the badge is worn by all those who are supporters of the program including the Vice Chancellor of MMU who is also first in his family to come to university (but he has a gold badge!). Other publicity featured in university publications and banners, all similarly focussed on celebration rather than deficit:
What was particularly interesting is that this scheme is still in its infancy but foregrounds the importance of supporting students throughout their whole degree including the pre-access stage. Helen also explained that this an evolving program with plans to engage with the family and caregivers of the students involved recognising that key to these types of approaches is positive word of mouth – parents and family members then can potentially act as ‘ambassadors’ for the program, so the need to create a positive experience is key at these early stages.
The FirstGen Scheme appeals to me on a number of levels – not only does it adopt of student life approach which includes actively assisting students in that post graduation phase but also, ints approach to engaging meaningfully with alumni (something I recommend in my Australian Government Teaching Fellowship) – much ‘food for thought’ for future endeavours in this field!
The MMU visit also provided an opportunity to explore some of the resources that are available for both staff and students – I would like to thank Prof Clare Hamshire and Dr Rachel Forsyth for sharing these resources and their time over the two day visit.
Firstly, Clare provided me with a series of booklets that have been converted into a larger ring bound book for first year students. The booklets draw upon the narratives of FiF students with brilliant illustrations that depict some of the issues that these students encounter in their journey into HE. All the narratives are based upon actual student stories so there is a realism to these contexts and situations – some images below from the story of Alice who struggles with loneliness and isolation:
This loneliness exacerbates a sense of not belonging and inevitably thoughts of departure follow:
These booklets have been translated into a larger workbook that will be provided to 4,000 commencing first years – the handbook includes both excerpts from the stories and self-help tips for commencing students. The workbook intentionally breaks down the ‘insider knowledge’ that exists within HE institutions and provides a tangible reference that can accompany the student as they move through their degree.
However, working with students is only part of the process – Dr Rachel Forsyth provided details of the ‘same but different’ resources – all of which are available as pdf downloads at the following link (or cut and paste: https://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/induction/same-but-different/index.php). These resources are designed to challenge staff thinking around deficit discourses and encourage ‘outside the box’ reflections about how best to support and engage diverse student cohorts. Rachel also agreed to be interviewed for this fellowship and pointed to the importance of the ‘relational’ in the HE environment and also, the need to develop ‘the cultural competence of staff’.