Being at university can be like walking a tight rope above a deep chasm. However, there is a safety net at the bottom, ready to catch you and put you back on your feet. It’s called Student Services.
As Dr Chris Lusk, the Director of Student Services explains, Student Services is the university unit that runs all of student support. The unit makes sure that all students regardless of year, social and medical background are looked after mentally and academically.
Their services are varied to reflect our diverse student body and its different needs. They aim to cater for all of the students at the University of St Andrews, ranging from 17-year-old freshers living away from home for the first time to fourth years about to enter the real world and postgraduates worrying about funding or their families.
To access the different services students can go to the ‘front door,’ located on North Street the Advice and Support Centre (ASC) is home to support advisers and many specialists, whom students can see to have their queries and worries answered.
Support advisers are trained in positive psychology, general life coaching and other counselling skills. They primarily provide short-term support. Supposing you felt as though you were in meltdown, Dr Lusk says, you’d be guaranteed to see a support adviser within one day. They are not specialists or counsellors themselves, but will refer you on to a specialist with the relevant training and legal backing if necessary. During a 30-minute consultation they can also help students learn the necessary skills to cope with life’s ups and downs. There are advance and walk-in appointments available.
Student Services also employs counsellors, who exist to provide long-term and in-depth care for particular issues. Currently, there is a two-week waiting period to see a counsellor, but to ensure that “nobody is abandoned” support advisers are available for regular sessions until more counsellors are brought in to meet the demand.
During our interview Dr Lusk spoke of one particular university in Scotland that’s got a five month waiting list just to see counsellors and they’ve got nothing in those five months. “Now we just don’t do that, she said. Adding that in St Andrews, support is available immediately and in the interim.
Having such high demand for counsellors as early as week one is a recent phenomenon: “In past years it might take us to the middle of October to fill up,” Dr Lusk explains. “But over time it’s dramatically increased.” This reflects a change in society where mental illnesses are less stigmatised, and now students are not as reluctant to ‘ASC’ for help. Although counsellors are an option, for most students ‘resiliency training’ is enough to help them cope. “It’s all about helping students to be resilient and to be prepared before they get to a stage of being in crisis or very unhappy,” Dr Lusk explains.
To do this, Student Services focuses “on trying to give people the tools they need to be able to help themselves.” This “is not us opting out of our responsibilities,” Dr Lusk stressed, but rather a way of “helping students to be resilient and to be prepared before they get to a stage of being in crisis or very unhappy.”
Student Services does, after all, have finite resources. By emphasising resiliency they can free up counsellors’ and support advisers’ time to help students that really need them for long-term specialised care, rather than students who need help getting over a bad day.
Additionally, learning to deal with small wobbles before they turn into anything greater students can spend less time worrying and more time enjoying ourselves and being productive. Not to mention that these skills will help throughout their working lives.
To help students avoid falling from the tightrope, Student Services runs different workshops throughout the academic year to help new and old students settle in and deal with common trials along the way, such as exams. Orientation kicks off the calendar while a new programme of Wellbeing Workshops has been rolled out. The purpose of these workshops is to help students build up their own capabilities by developing coping strategies and giving tips. They cover common issues such as settling in, dealing with perfectionism, and exam stress. The full schedule can be found in the ASC or online, but some require online enrolment or a referral from a support adviser.
There are also online workshops, such as SilverCloud. This is a new programme of workbooks on subjects such as depression, body image, and stress. It has been designed so that students can do units by themselves or alongside a Support Adviser.
Student Services was also behind the Sexual Consent workshops last year, as part of the Stand Together Programme. This year the programme will be expanded to include mental health, alcohol and drugs. The aim of these workshops is to raise awareness and to strengthen The Bubble’s community feel by helping students look out for each other better.
If you have a learning difficulty, mental or physical disability, specialists are available to give confidential advice and support. Disability specialists liaise with academic schools to organise academic allowances, which include alternative format suites and extra time in exams.
They also work with student accommodation to provide a room in halls that best suit students’ needs, wherever possible, or assist in contacting social services for organising independent living support. It is recommended that students register their disability and contact the team as soon as possible to make the necessary arrangements.
Another challenge that some students at St Andrews have to deal with is the process of applying and extending visas. This can be difficult and confusing, which is why a team of immigration specialists is on hand for international students. For example, if your visa is about to expire over the summer or you need proof of education Student Services can but help you to get the necessary documentation together.
For general legal concerns and questions, the ASC also hosts fortnightly clinics with local law practices that provide free initial consultations. Students can ask questions on anything, including getting deposits back and accommodation problems.
Another important skill that you learn at university is budgeting. If you are struggling with this, or don’t know where to start, support advisers can help you. However, if you still find yourself broke before the end of the semester, or worrying about how you will pay your rent for the next month, don’t panic! As Dr Lusk emphasises, “There shouldn’t be an excuse for any student to be poverty stricken and starving in the streets,” which is why students can be referred to a financial adviser when they are struggling with money. These advisors have the power to draw upon Hardship Funds to help pay for rent, or for whatever else the money is needed for. Students can also find out about different salaries and grants that are available at the ASC.
Student services even has an events support section. St Andrews is regularly rocked by hundreds of students taking part in our annual traditions of Raisin and May Dip, usually after a few drinks, sometimes taking part in regrettable activities. So to ensure the safety of all participants and bystanders, the police and ambulance service are going to be more involved with this year’s Raisin.
Although exams may feel as far away as the summer, you will be surprised by how quickly the semester goes by. Before long you will be faced with fighting for study spaces and trying not to think about all the work you should have done instead of going on nights out. To combat the stress of revision and exams Student Services transforms a small area of St Andrews into a miniature petting zoo. Puppies are brought in for students to play with, often in conjunction with the Guide Dogs Society. (returning will remember last year’s alpacas stationed outside the library.) To encourage students to take breaks, a relaxation station was set up near the Library. This consisted of a tent filled with bean-bags, board games, colouring pencils and paper, and free tea and coffee to create a space for students to take a break.
Walking that university tightrope is neither easy nor straightforward; there will be wobbles and obstacles along the way. Student Services offers many courses to prevent you from falling and support advisers and specialists to catch you if you do regardless of where you are on that tightrope or why you fell.