Implementing engaging and supportive pastoral programs for the holiday period

“For many, this will be the first time that they won’t be able to spend the holidays with their families”

This year has taken its toll on both international and domestic university students, writes director of safeguarding for Study Group Sandy Connors. And while the allotted travel window for students to return home is very welcome, the majority of international students face travel restrictions preventing them from returning home.

For many, this will be the first time that they won’t be able to spend the holidays with their families. This can be an extremely anxious period, especially for younger students.

Providing pastoral and welfare support for international students is, of course, needed all year round, but it is especially necessary over the holiday period. It requires a blend of group, peer and one-to-one support that maintains their mental wellbeing. Here’s what you need to consider.

Engaging support networks

Interactive student forums are beneficial for students to get to know each other, form social support networks and create lasting friendships. However, they can be neglected during the festive break, so it’s essential to appoint someone to keep them active. At our Durham International Study Centre we set up an online notice board using Padlet to gauge student interest on activities at the start of the year, and they quickly took it over and ran with it themselves.

Student buddy schemes offer students who are struggling to effectively integrate into an unfamiliar environment and make a connection with a supportive peer. These schemes can be utilised over the festive period to ensure that students remaining in the UK are paired up over the holidays.

Go above and beyond with extracurricular activities 

Extracurricular activities help students adapt to the culture of a new country, build a network of friends and transition to new ways of studying. What we’ve learned this year is that the ability to shift these activities online is vital to their success.

Of course, the usual sports and music societies are still important, but they don’t appeal to everyone. Examples of other clubs we’ve introduced a Bellerbys College London include global social leaders, circular economy and Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment which help prepare students for work in the UK, while the current affairs and Brighton Architect Club at Bellerbys College Brighton introduce students to local culture. Keeping these active in the run up to Christmas can provide vital continuity for anxious students.

Interactive sessions (either in-person or virtually) that focus on healthy eating, keeping physically active and mental health have never been more important. An example of this comes from the team at Durham University International Study Centre.

They have been providing students with daily dietary, exercise and academic routines this year to help keep them engaged. These workshops allow international students to interact, which we know is key to the development of a supportive community.

Regular welfare checks

 Having regular access to a dedicated welfare officer, who students can consult for academic and pastoral related guidance, helps build trust and confidence. Ideally, all education institutions will conduct regular welfare checks with all students under 18 years of age, and with adults identified as being vulnerable, via phone or video calls.

Something to bear in mind is that, in many cultures, mental health is a taboo topic. Welfare officers need to be trained on these cultural differences to spot students who may be struggling with their wellbeing but who are worried about opening up.

International students have shown resilience and determination during this period of enormous uncertainty to achieve their educational ambitions, but even the most focused learners sometimes need support. Safeguarding and pastoral support is the foundation of good teaching, and all educational establishments must give students the help they need.

About the author: Sandy Connors is director of safeguarding for Study Group in the UK and Europe and is responsible for safeguarding governance and compliance across Study Group’s international study centres and Bellerbys Colleges.