- Shauna-Aine O’Brien, Student Support and Development Officer, University of Kent
- Cerian Dantzie, Social Psychology MSc student at University of Kent, and Outreach Student Ambassador
- Glory Oluwaseun, third year Liberal Arts student at University of Kent, and Outreach Student Ambassador
- Shanjit Sadhra, second year Law student at University of Kent, and Outreach Student Ambassador
This blog is written by three Project Student Ambassadors and the project lead, who carried out research into the value of ambassador-centred outreach and presented their findings at the NEON Summer Symposium 2021. Here, they share some of their findings’.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, the Outreach and Widening Participation (OWP) team at University of Kent reflected on ways they could contribute to the cause by working with Black Ambassadors to explore the experiences of Black students transitioning into Higher Education.
The first Mentoring and University Insights Project worked with eight Ambassadors as co-developers of a project based on their lived experiences. The OWP team considered co-constructing narratives, developing skills, and exploring creative and collaborative pedagogies with Ambassadors.
As an extension of this project, we conducted an autoethnographic study to investigate whether centring ambassador experiences helped to develop a greater sense of ownership and belonging to the OWP team. Is co-creation valued by ambassadors, especially when targeting specific audiences in projects? Our study highlighted some areas of interest which are summarised here.
The Higher Education sector is grappling with issues of inequality, namely the gap in degree attainment between Black and White students. According to the latest Office for Students (OfS) statistics, 82% of White students nationally achieved a first or second upper class degree compared to 60% of Black students. At the University of Kent there is a 15-percentage point gap in good degree attainment between Black and White students (based on UK, full-time, first degree entrants). As an institution, we are actively trying to address sector-wide and institutional factors and barriers that trigger lower rates of attainment, continuation and progression. We believe that there are institutional issues at a national level affecting young Black people’s attainment and educational experiences and, as part of institutions perpetuating these inequalities, there is a duty of care to address them and find ways to widen access to HE and reduce attainment, continuation and progression gaps.
One of the backbones of Critical Race Theory is the importance of centring the voices of marginalised peoples, and the value of lived experiences being shared. “Counterstories, which challenge the received wisdom,” writes Delgado, “can open new windows into reality, showing us that there are possibilities for life other than the ones we live.” The outreach work the OWP does with Ambassadors explores these ideas, asking them to share what it is like to live on campus, to study their subject, and make friends. This project took this further by basing the whole programme on Black Ambassadors’ lived experiences.
This approach was valued by project Ambassadors, who highlighted the importance of being able to contribute their ideas and those ideas being respected. Feeling appreciated brought job satisfaction and a feeling of belonging. As one Ambassador said, “I had the opportunity to share my own experience which felt invaluable to the project, even more than any other work opportunities I had done before.”
Working with a diverse group of Ambassadors allowed them to explore their full identities and reflect on their individual experiences. They could consider intersectionalities, as opposed to having to represent a monolithic Black student experience.
Ambassadors were motivated to join the project for three main reasons: being able to share their experience; support Black students; and it aligned with their values. A key motivation shared by all was being able to participate in a project that specifically targeted Black students.
Although Ambassadors were excited about the project, there were some reservations about signing up. These varied from time commitment to feeling like the programme would be superficial, or as one Ambassador put it, “bandwagon activism”. Students perceive when universities call for ‘diversity’ to increase attraction and turn important movements into “empty slogans”. As the programme grew, Ambassadors understood that this was not just a small attempt at activism, but as one Ambassador said, it “evolved into an even bigger project”, and that they would be paid for their work to avoid epistemic exploitation.
This experience taught us that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle when something is superficial or meaningful. Students can ascertain when activism is reactionary, and when they are just being used as tokens. Performative Activism helps no one, students can see right through it. Institutions should be intentional with the programmes they create and establish spaces where their marginalised students are free to speak honestly. By enabling this openness, institutions would create forums for collaboration with students, with the hope of developing transformative change.
Given the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought it would be prudent to highlight the effects it has had on Ambassadors throughout the project’s development (see Table 1).
Table 1. Ambassador perceptions on the impact of working on the project online.
These views should be taken into consideration when planning sessions which may be held online, as it brings different challenges and benefits to face-to-face work.
In conclusion, we can say that this type of collaborative work is different to the regular Ambassador work we offer at University of Kent. Ambassadors felt a heightened sense of belonging to the project team, to their community, and to the OWP team. We could not have done this kind of targeted work without working with members of the Black student community. Colleagues advised the team to assess what we do now, and consider what we can do next to address structural inequalities and gaps in progression, attainment, and retention in marginalised groups in HE. We didn’t have to look very far to see a wealth of knowledge, experience, and a willingness to be part of this pilot project in our Student Ambassadors.
The learning on this project has been considerable, and the OWP team are reviewing how it can impact our wider outreach offer, by way of our words and actions, to prioritise inclusivity. Working with Student Ambassadors as collaborators, co-creators, evaluators and advisors is something we want to keep doing and are looking to do more research into. The Mentoring and University Insights Project for Black students will continue next year and be expanded to work with LGBTQ+ students.
In Outreach, the focus is mostly on pre-entry learners, and rarely on the ambassadors. This work has been transformative, not only for learners but, additionally, for the Ambassadors and wider OWP team. By collaborating on this project, everyone has not just been given a seat at the table, but a voice too.
 “Differences in Student Outcomes”, Office for Students, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/differences-in-student-outcomes/ethnicity/ (last accessed 27/08/2021)
 Delgado, Richard, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative (August 1, 1989). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 2411, 1989
 Françoise Vergès (2021). A decolonial feminism. Translated by A.J. Bohrer. London: Pluto Press, p.15.