University staff buddy up with stranded students

Date 8.07.2020

Overseas students stranded in Northampton during the coronavirus lockdown have been supported by kind-hearted volunteers from the town’s university.

Students who have benefited from the Check-in and Chat initiative have said it’s provided them with much-needed reassurance and company, during what many found to be a stressful period of isolation.

Fifty-four University staff members volunteered for the scheme, which saw them commit to regular contact with the 74 students living in private rented accommodation who signed up, to offer a listening ear on the phone, or via email.

The service was launched on Monday 27 April and is now coming to an end following the loosening of lockdown measures.

Canadian Occupational Therapy undergraduate, Breanna Wagner, found herself stranded 4,000 miles from her family in Swan Hills, Alberta, during lockdown.

She was paired up with university staff member, Kirby Smith – and the pair have kept in touch after Breanna finally made it home when the lockdown was relaxed.

Breanna Wagner, left, and Kirby Smith

Breanna Wagner, left, and Kirby Smith.

Breanna said: “As there’s such a big time difference between Northampton and Canada it was difficult to talk to my family when I wanted to, so having somebody in the same time zone to talk to was really good.

“I really benefited from it, it gave me somebody to talk to, to bounce things off, such as my worries about the whole situation.

“Even though I’ve now gone home, Kirby and I are still in touch and chatting, and I’m hoping to be back in Northampton in August.”

Kirby, who is a Customer Service Supervisor in the University’s Library and Learning Services department, said: “With students being away from their friends and family during such a worrying time, it was important we were there for them, and I was happy I could help Breanna during such a difficult time.”

Simi Chacko, left, and Anna Walker

Simi Chacko, left, and Anna Walker.

Simi Chacko, who is studying a Master’s in International Marketing Strategy, also remained in Northampton, when travelling back to her home in the south Indian state of Kerala wasn’t possible.

She was full of praise for her phone buddy, Anna Walker, who is Senior Administrator in the University’s Office of Placements and Work-Based Learning.

Simi said: “Anna turned out to be a great supporter and mentor for me.

“Though we started with friendly casual conversations, eventually it led to more productive and constructive chats as I was searching for placements to begin in September, and Anna works in the placements department. Although this was purely coincidental, Anna turned out to be my go-to person with CV reviewing, cover letter writing, job search, and connecting with her colleagues in the placement department.

“She is such a fabulous lady and I believe we both have a great rapport with each other. Her weekly calls were like a motivation to have a productive week – be it working on my assignments or placement hunting or anything that involves effort and dedication. So that every week when she rang up I had something exciting to share rather than having a gloomy mundane chat complaining about the boredom of the lockdown.

“I am grateful that I got a new friend, who turned out to be my mentor, whom the lockdown has gifted me. Though I never got to see her in person, we exchanged pictures of each other on email. I just can’t wait to see her when the University finally reopens in September. I hope my companionship equally benefited her in some way or the other.”

Check-in and Chat was co-ordinated by Ruth Gasson, who is the Service Administrator for the Student and Academic Services department.

Ruth said: “The scheme went well because it catered for the needs of the individual student. Some had initial queries around finance or their study and then didn’t require further support, while others have developed lasting friendships with their volunteer.

“I’ve really enjoyed co-ordinating the scheme, especially getting to know all the volunteers from the various faculties and professional services teams.

“I’ve loved hearing the stories of how it’s made a difference to the students – and the volunteers – and how much the service has been appreciated. But most of all I love the fact that I work for an organisation that is proactive rather than reactive and that we pull together in times of crisis.”

Here’s some of the things staff members said about the Click and Chat scheme:

  • “The student was very open about how she was feeling and mentioned a couple of weeks ago she felt very overwhelmed with everything that is going on but was feeling more positive now.”
  • “I’ve just had a lovely chat with the student, and he registered for the service because he was waiting for a counselling meeting and he wanted a friendly voice.
  • “It was actually nice to be able to help the student, she said the chat helped her, and it has made me feel a little better too.”
  • “The student seems to be happy they are not being forgotten and we are checking in with them.”

While the scheme was for students living off campus, those residing in halls of residence were supported by the University’s Residential Life team. This team, which supports students in person, via email, on the telephone and via Facebook, dealt with 2,716 enquiries during April and May.