Summary of our ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021 event

Screengrab from the event on the Gather Town platform

By Kieran Balloo and Anesa Hosein

On 16th November we held a free interactive online event to discuss the importance of mental wellbeing amongst university students. This event was primarily targeted at young people who were thinking of attending university (or had just started) and their parents or guardians. This event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2021 and was made possible thanks to funding from the University of Surrey’s Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account (ESRC IAA), which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

In this blog post, we summarise what we did at the event for the benefit of those who couldn’t make it along.

Gather Town

Using the Gather Town platform, we designed a simulation of different university types, including universities with lots of green space, universities with lots of blue space, historic universities, arts, sports and culture-rich universities, and city-based universities. We did this in order to encourage participants to think about the role of a university’s environment in students’ wellbeing (see Activity 1 below).

Presentation on our research

As participants gathered at the front of the virtual room (see picture above), we began the event with Kieran providing a personal story about recent events in his life that negatively impacted on his wellbeing. Kieran drew a link between his own experiences and those of prospective students when they are about to start university, in terms of the uncertainty they face and the potential feelings that they lack control in their lives (particularly when awaiting exam grades that determine whether they get into university). Kieran and Anesa then discussed some findings from the StudentWellLives project that related to the roles of individuals’ social identities and university attendance in their feelings of life satisfaction and loneliness. Some of these findings have been summarised in these infographics. Kieran then talked about some examples of different environments that have been shown to enhance people’s wellbeing, including accessing green space (e.g. parks and woodlands), blue space (e.g. lakes and the coast), heritage sites (e.g. museums, galleries and theatres), and participating in sports and dance. The idea was to get participants to think about how universities might make better use of their own environments to support students’ wellbeing, which leads us to Activity 1.

Activity 1

Participants were put into groups and set their first activity, which was to watch a video clip of a hypothetical young person entering university (all the videos can be found here), then write a continuation of that character’s story. Each group was asked to move to a different location in Gather Town that represented a different university environment (as discussed above), then incorporate that environment into their story.

Here are two examples of the stories that participants came up with:

Group 1: Continuing the story of David, who went to an Arts, Sport and Culture Rich University
Arts, Sport and Culture Rich University environment in Gather Town

Hi I am David, I’ve just started at a University that has amazing sports facilities and in my first semester I’ve joined lots of groups and clubs, made loads of great friends and I’m absolutely loving it!

I’ve joined the football club and I’m already captain! The team is great fun, though I do miss my home crew too. I’ve tried out lots of new sports too and the swimming pool is superb. Getting fitter by the day! I have become addicted to the gym! I haven’t done a lot of academic work yet, but that’s ok, it’s early days.

I’m in my second year now and the work is much harder. My exam grades from year 1 were not great, I spent a bit too much time on sports! I really need to make more time for my studies but being part of the sports clubs is so important to me and takes up a lot of my time. I have assessments coming up and it’s really stressing me out, the more I put the work off the more stressed I feel. My parents and my tutors keep telling me to manage my time better but the truth is, I care more about sport because it makes me feel good. I’m not sure how to organise myself better and could use some support.

I really enjoyed my assessment last year where I got to talk about my sports and include my hobbies, I wish all assessments could be like that. Now in my final year I have to focus on passing my exams and getting a job, either that or I have to take a gap year and truly focus on professional sport. I’m really confused as to what to do for the best. It is a very stressful time but I decided not to bottle it up, so I reached out to our University wellbeing team and they have helped me prioritise my time. I felt a bit embarrassed but it was really helpful and I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because they’d have been really angry. I still don’t really know what I want to do after Uni.

I have passed! Unbelievable, not sure how I did it. Really glad because my parents will be pleased, and hopefully I’ll get a job, but still unsure what I want to do. Decided to take a year off and work/play sports until I can use my connections and see what comes up.

It’s now a year since I left Uni and I have realised that sport is such a big part of my life, and brings me such happiness that I decided to apply to do a master’s degree in sports science, so that I can hopefully become a sports coach or a sports tutor and pass on my skills and experience to other people. OK so it means more academic work! BUT I feel so passionate about doing this as a career I now have the focus and maturity required to do well at the work and still manage my sports and hobbies on the side. I feel really excited for the future even though it is going to be a big challenge.

Group 2: Continuing the story of Daisy, who went to a Green Space University
Green Space University environment in Gather Town

In her first semester Daisy is commuting to university and focusing on her studies, so she is not aware of different activities to do in her university environment. She decides to involve her nan in her university life to help her adjust. Daisy isn’t initially aware that there is young adult carer support available, but she is signalled to it later by her personal tutor after her first semester. She also joins her commuter network to travel into university with others who live in a similar area. As a way to make friends and relax, she shares her thoughts for the day with her new travel buddy. She doesn’t take up the peer mentor scheme in her first year.

In her second year, Daisy reflects on her own transition to university and decides to become a peer mentor to help new commuter students adjust into university. She realises that she would have benefited from having a peer mentor herself. Although the university has lots of green space which could be good for her wellbeing, she is not always able to have time to make the most of the space. However, on days where she has gaps between lectures she is able to go for walks to enjoy the space, which is positive for her wellbeing. She does ‘colour walks’ that allow her to start noticing the colours of the rainbow in her environment.

In her third year, she takes up some volunteering opportunities. She becomes aware of these opportunities through social media. Her taught courses reduce in her final year, so she has the chance to take part in more activities on campus, like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises. She also has more time to explore the campus, which has allotments and gardens.

We met back in the main room to discuss these stories and reflect on how the student characters were able to make use of the environments of their universities to enhance their wellbeing. It was useful to reflect on how just having access to these beneficial environments might not be enough or could also cause problems in other areas of their lives. For David, the group determined that engaging in sports was positive for his wellbeing, but also distracted him from his studies, so he needed to learn how to better balance his time. For Daisy, she didn’t initially have time to make use of the green space in her university until later on when her timetable enabled space between classes for her to go for walks. The activity enabled participants to think critically about university environments – certain spaces can be beneficial for wellbeing, but there are other things that need to be considered based on students’ backgrounds and individual contexts.

We also reflected on how the stories did not incorporate the Covid pandemic. But we were able, through the stories, to imagine how the disconnect from networks and activities could have affected young people’s mental wellbeing during the pandemic. For example, David who was a ‘sports addict’ would have presumably felt a sense of loss of identity in not being able to play sports, which could have affected his life satisfaction.

Activity 2

Participants were asked to find or create an image that represented the following question: “what does wellbeing mean for you at university?” We each shared our images during the event and explained why we chose our images. Participants could also share their image on Twitter (tagging in @uniwelllives) or Instagram (tagging in @studentwelllives) in order to enter our photo/caption competition. Anesa’s image is below.

End of the session

We ended the session by thanking the participants for coming, the ESRC for funding the event, our partners and project team, and the event co-facilitators: Adeeba Ahmad, Fengmei Zhu, and Beyza Ucar. Special thanks were also given to Beyza Ucar for designing the space in Gather Town and creating the videos and infographics.

We hope that the event encouraged participants to think about the wealth of benefits to student wellbeing that may already exist in different university environments, but also understand how access and take-up of valuable opportunities may be muddied by students’ personal circumstances, backgrounds, and individual contexts.

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