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Amy Martyn, Maisie Durrant and Tilly Prestridge talk about their experiences as Student Buddies during a very unusual academic year.

Student Buddying is not a new concept, however during this unprecedented academic year, one may argue it has developed a novel significance. It has been widely reported that COVID restrictions and the government’s ‘stay at home’ message have increased feelings of isolation and loneliness in many students, estranged from their typical support networks. Notably, first year students have had to contend with the unusual circumstances of COVID alongside adjusting to a new environment, that being living away from home for the first time. Whilst not a replacement for the tumultuous year, the piloting of a Buddy Scheme within the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology has proven a successful attempt to rekindle a sense community, supporting first year students in their quest to integrate into university life.

After an initial round of recruitment, Buddy Scheme volunteers were paired up and trained, going on to deliver weekly virtual sessions to their allocated ‘Buddy Groups’. Whilst utilising different approaches, the sessions offered an outlet for first year students to find a voice in a social space, meeting and befriending other students on their course whilst enjoying the opportunity to share their feelings. The volunteers related their personal experience to help alleviate the first year’s fears, not as trained experts but as fellow students that could signpost university services and share advice.

Becoming a Student Buddy offered an invaluable learning experience. As students during COVID, the lockdowns and restriction of in-person activities made finding work experience and the opportunity to progress professional work skills difficult. Student Buddying therefore presented the chance for self-development and confidence building in a work environment. Alongside this, we all experienced the difficulties that can come with the transition to university in our first year, and many of us had also faced additional challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Upon realising that the new cohort of students were experiencing both simultaneously, the opportunity to help those struggling in lockdown spoke to us as something we ought to reach out and do. Signing up to the buddy scheme also helped combat our own isolation, reigniting a sense of community and creating a sense of structure during prolonged periods of primarily independent study.

Sessions were flexible to the first years’ needs; one week we created and presented an essay workshop after the students had raised concerns surrounding essay skills, reporting the difficulty of finding adequate academic help whilst in lockdown. The workshop included a mixture our own tips as well links to various University resources such as the Academic Skills Centre, which students could go on to explore in their own time. The next week we played a quiz on Zoom to provide some social relief for the first years after they had been sharing feelings of isolation. There was a general sense of ‘missing out’ on the student experience; they felt social life was a key part of university. Thus, whilst we could not give them the fresher experience they missed out on, we tried to impart some of the student social life into our sessions.

A common challenge appeared to be communication. At the best of times first years are settling in, having fun with new friends, and not wanting to reply to their emails—at the worst of times during lockdown, the lethargic slog of the week made it hard for the first years to reach out and connect. We found some students failed to attend sessions when they were feeling down; it was hard to virtually get a group going and connecting. The impact of lockdown damaged the first years’ social lives and ability to ‘join back in’ when they had the chance to reintegrate back into the social setting; it was not easy for some to find their footing again after becoming accustomed to the lack of social connection COVID had induced and made the ‘norm’.

Despite challenges, the piloting of the student buddy scheme provided first year students with a sense of stability during a year of great uncertainty. With volunteers all adopting different approaches to the weekly meetings, sessions were tailored to suit the needs of the individual groups, aiding the overall success of the scheme. In survey feedback collected from 10 BA1 students that took part in the buddy scheme, most students cited their reasons for joining the scheme were to make friends and to have the opportunity to meet students in higher year groups (i.e. the student buddies). Given that 9 out of the 10 BA1 students felt they had achieved the goals they set out to achieve when joining the scheme, and 4 out of the 10 students also saying they had developed friendships that had extended outside of the virtual meetings, the scheme appears to have been an overall success.

As student buddies we collectively feel that similarly to the BA1 students, the scheme has allowed us to better integrate into our university community whilst also providing the opportunity to develop valuable transferable skills and increase confidence in the professional sphere.

It is hoped the sense of community, integration, and support the Buddying aimed to foster can be continued. After the success of the pilot scheme, Student Buddying will be rolled out on an even wider scale at the start of the next academic year, with recruitment for new buddies having already begun. It will be interesting to observe how the scheme evolves as we emerge post-pandemic.

As we enter our third year at the University of Birmingham, we are grateful to have played a part in the first year of the Student Buddy Scheme. We hope to continue our involvement in the future.

If you would like to find out more about the Student Buddy Scheme or are interested in getting involved please email Naomi Maltby, Student Experience Officer at e.socialpolicy@contacts.bham.ac.uk.

Tilly Prestridge is a second year BA (Hons) Social Policy student. Amy Martyn is a second year BA (Hons) Policy, Politics and Economics student. Maisie Durrant is a second year BA (Hons) Criminology student.