Of the many people who could claim to be the ‘face’ of the University, Patrick Mallon (4th year, history and English) is better qualified than most. As principal ambassador, he oversees the University’s efforts to cast aside the mystical visions of ivory towers, archaic traditions and haughty elitism that still prevails among school pupils thinking of applying to university; physical proof that there are, indeed, some normal, down-to-earth people at St Andrews. He fits the mould perfectly: with a well-spoken, distinctly Scottish accent (he hails from Falkirk), jeans and a blue jumper, the first impression he gives off is friendly and candid.
I ask what his biggest challenge is. “Admin,” he states with a weary dead- pan. He is in charge of over 300 ambassadors and helps coordinate the intricate network of tours, workshops and summer schools that the University has set up to promote itself. It is no menial task: seven visiting days annually, around 10 widening access schemes (with names ranging from the simple, enthusiastic, playground-focused ‘Space School’ and ‘Science Camp’ to the more mature ‘Sutton Trust Summer School’), along with numerous other talks and presentations at schools.
One particular project he enthuses about is the Teachers Together conference – which he found “really really interesting” – described on the University website as a partnership between Scottish state schools, Local Education authorities and St Andrews, with guidance teachers coming from all parts of Scotland. “We found a lot of [the pupils] had so many misconceptions about what St Andrews was, what kind of people come here… We were able to chat to them and convince them that we’re not all toffs and rich boys – it’s a great university, and a really cool place to be.”
This delicate balance between promoting St Andrews as a “cool place” and encouraging high academic achievement forms the essence of his work. I ask about the type of pitch he delivers to pupils in the Outreach schemes: the “first and foremost” thing he will always say is that “St Andrews is one of the best universities in the UK, and the best in Scotland, arguably.”
The primary target in these talks (unsurprisingly) is to work against the stereotypes that surround St Andrews: “We have a really diverse group of ambassadors, some from Scotland, some from the rest of the UK, some international…We can have a laugh about things like ‘Champagning’ [the infamous Youtube video of students pouring champagne on themselves] – that’s not what St Andrews is like, it’s just what the media picks up on.” He has, in the past, directly confronted the media itself, commenting on the online Guardian article about ‘Champagning’ in 2012 that “widening access programmes are the way forward, but they are undermined by our elitist image entrenched by these kinds of antics.”
Despite these occasional setbacks, however, he seems pleased about the progress that the Widening Access team have been able to make. “We have so many kids coming through summer schools who end up applying to St Andrews, making it their first choice university.” One new project, Access to Rural Communities (ARC), seeks out the students from the farthest flung depths of the Highlands and other areas – “the places that most universities miss out on… We try and pick up the kids who have been left behind.”
The Ambassador team has been closely involved with the 600th anniversary celebrations. “We were there to make sure events were running smoothly, and did it for free. The vice ambassadors were there for every event.” I ask what effect the celebrations might have had on the University’s image – could they possibly hinder the Ambassadors’ efforts in promoting the right sort of perception? “It can be a challenge, especially when people are in their gowns and fancy hats; it may put some people off who are looking for a simple and modern university. Personally, though, I think they’re what make St Andrews so great… They’ve been really exciting.” He adds that in the past it was mandatory for ambassadors to wear gowns during student tours, which is no longer the case.
Moving from the past to what the future has in store, I ask what his current plans and goals are. “We’re looking to expand the Ambassador Scholarship, which has been in the shadows for a couple of years now. It’s £2,000, raised by Ambassadors themselves, which can go towards an incoming student over the course of their four years of study. With more fundraising from the Ambassadors, we can extend this to multiple students.” He is also looking to “join forces” with the Union, who have their own widening access scheme that could complement their own efforts.
Patrick’s job seems to hold immense satisfaction, in both forming a crucial part celebrating the best parts of the University’s history and promoting its image as a thriving, diverse and “cool” place for pupils across Scotland, the rest of the UK and indeed the world to aspire to. While he has only a year left here, he and his team’s contribution to the University’s affairs, in persuading otherwise sceptical pupils to aspire to study at a flourishing and sought-after institution, will have positive effects for many years to come.