Preparing students for an independent life

Andrew Wilkinson, CEO, Schools and Universities Sodexo UK & Ireland shares a 4-step plan to help acclimatise new students to student life

Today is University Mental Health Day.

When academic expectations and leaving home for a new life are combined with the rapidly changing economic, political, social, technological, cultural and environmental forces which are reshaping young people’s daily lives, it is easy to see how today’s students are under more pressure than ever before.

The pressure to reach perfection in academia can negatively impact the psychological and emotional well-being of all students. UK universities have seen a 53% rise in the number of students seeking help for their mental health and, therefore, universities need to ensure that adequate resources and expertise are in place and accessible to meet the rising demand for student mental health services. Additionally, their partners and service providers like Sodexo, who have daily touchpoints with students, are ideally placed to be part of the solution.

Student life seems pretty clear at first glance – academic achievements have been assessed, the prospectus analysed, a course identified, and the selection process is complete, potential final careers may even have been considered. A contract is in place: university fees paid; curriculum delivered.

However, fees finance far more than the academic side of university. Students are effectively joining a club which will support them with accommodation, catering, social facilities, healthcare, emotional welfare services and much more. Many of them, especially first-generation students, are unprepared for this new life, one where they will no longer have the protection of home, parents and all that is familiar. In many cases, they may be moving to a different count or indeed country, facing language, cultural and environmental differences.

To help students to navigate these large life changes, Sodexo has created a four-step programme to help reassure these new ‘club members’ and ensure that they benefit from a rounded and happy university experience beyond the academic:

  1. Pre-arrival
    Creating relationships before students arrive. Students are contacted with a friendly phone call by members of the team to check that they know what to expect, outline processes and to answer any questions.This personal contact is all too rare and experience has shown that it has a very positive impact.
  2. Arrival
    The first three weeks in a new environment can be bewildering. Newcomers are given a positive welcome by Sodexo staff who have been trained to anticipate their needs and ensure that they are on hand to help and give advice. Social events such as barbecues, book clubs and meet your neighbour gatherings are organised to help students meet one another.
  3. Living
    Students will be living at the university for one to four years and will come with their own expectations. Sodexo seeks to manage these carefully by being clear about what it does and does not provide. The personal growth of students and the development of life skills are key parts of their university experience and need to be addressed and cared for throughout their time. Personal finance workshops, healthy eating cookery classes, safety briefings, travel planning are all on offer. Students are also invited to celebrate different cultural and religious special days and holidays, as well as activities focussed on calendar dates such as Pride, Black History Month, International Women’s Day. In addition, health and wellbeing activities are developed to go beyond pure healthcare. Students are encouraged to take part in community activities, take different forms of exercise, attend health screenings and are even given sleep advice. All of these and other aspects of their lives are carefully considered, needs anticipated and then catered for.
  4. Departure
    Leaving university can be just as stressful as arriving for the first time. Students are leaving a protected environment behind for a new life of challenges and choices. CV and LinkedIn workshops help with preparing to job-search and life lesson learning will have taken place throughout their time in further education. After they have left, staff members stay in contact with them, supporting them as they face the outside world.

Sodexo is always looking to partner with organisations that can support students when it comes to transitioning into the working world. Sodexo has partnered with Enactus UK, a social enterprise and educational charity which works with students to encourage the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders and social innovators.

The first project in the programme connects the important issue of mental health support, teams of students from a range of universities have been developing real-life social enterprises on this theme. Three shortlisted teams are due to present to a panel of judges from Enactus and Sodexo imminently with the winning project going through to the Enactus UK national competition which is being held in London in April.

At every stage of Sodexo’s relationship with students, the focus is on personal interaction in a spirit of openness and warmth. By looking at things from a student’s point of view and drawing on experience, the Sodexo and university teams can create a safe and secure environment where memories and learning will stay with students and may well help shape their entire future.