Return to Universities; the potential for collective healing, but not without effort.
During a year of collective grief, loss, fear, pressure, stress and uncertainty, the mental well being of us all has been tested. The robustness of our own sense of resilience has been tested, leading to questions like: what actually is resilience? Where does it come from? How do we cultivate it?
Resilience is often misunderstood as a personality trait that ‘strong’ individuals possess. We revere these resilient individuals who soldier on in what seems like solitude without really knowing how they persevere in the face of adversity, what skills they have and where they got them from.
The ability to cope with life’s challenges doesn’t magically arise in an individual, but it is cultivated through human connection, shared experience, communication, the exchange of stories and group growth, all of which provide individuals with the emotional security that they need- a point of safety and retreat when things are not going well for them individually.
For many young people this collective support is found whilst at University. Perhaps it’s a salsa club, a weekly film viewing, a support group, a helpline service or a community gardening club. Whatever the activity, the spaces created by these social networks provide students with invaluable support. They allow people to foster the social connections that are critical for personal development and sound mental well being. It’s often the casual, less formally structured support networks that play the most impactful role in ensuring the mental well-being of students.
It comes as no doubt then that campuses reopening in September could offer a powerful moment of collective healing for many students as they re-join societies, attend support groups, meet new people and relive the positive effects of in-person student communities.
However, this return to University will not come without its challenges. Whilst some organisations and societies have transferred their work online in efficient ways, many haven’t. Some have awkwardly shifted their activity onto zoom, some have halted altogether and many have lost significant amounts of organisational memory. A concerted effort will be required to build these spaces up again to provide the support networks that have always been a fundamental part of the University experience. How do we help rebuild University campuses to be places of real support for students in light of the pandemic?
Beyond Equality (BE) provides Student Leadership workshops to students going into places of leadership within teams, clubs and societies. These 4 module training courses are focused not only on building these leaders as individuals but also giving them templates to implement changes within their clubs and societies to create more inclusive spaces on campus. Not only is this an opportunity to foster collective healing but student leaders also have the chance to press reset on campus cultures. Clubs, societies and student bodies have an opportunity to redefine and promote their values, setting the ‘norms’ of campus life in a more positive, inclusive and kinder way.
As a charity geared towards rethinking new and positive masculinities, BE unpicks and discusses the mental well-being challenges faced by male students. There is great variety in the different issues that young men face, something that BE acknowledges and caters for through its workshops. The struggles and pressures faced by someone encountering homophobia will differ greatly from a heterosexual man. Non-binary people face gendered expectations that differ further still. The mental health issues faced by men are not uniform, nor are the men themselves who face them. Universities should be a space where students can access varying kinds of support for varying kinds of mental-health based challenges.
One of the most celebrated and wonderful parts of going to University is the opportunity to grow as a person, including the development of one’s sense of resilience. That opportunity has been made much more difficult for students over the past year and will not resume effortlessly upon the return to campuses in September. Beyond Equality is there to ensure that spaces are created for social connection and that student leaders are best equipped to provide and spread support for students.
At Beyond Equality Universities, we specialise in working with student clubs, teams, societies and halls of residence to help them build cultures that are more inclusive, safer and lead to happier and healthier individuals. Our work in universities is mixed gender.
We don’t give lectures or tell young people how to behave - we create an environment in which a group can talk to each other about their own lived experiences, thoughts and beliefs. By doing so we give the participants an opportunity to free themselves from some of the pressures and stereotypes that can lead to negative behaviours.
As an organisation, we aspire to help men and boys contribute to improving gender relations by giving them an opportunity and space to interact with each other, guided by our trained facilitators. Interacting in conversation is at the core of what we do, allowing people to learn at their own pace.