7 February 2022
For Student Volunteering Week 2022, we are celebrating STAR volunteers and their contributions. There are thousands of students dedicating their time to make the UK a more welcoming place for refugees and people seeking asylum. In this blog, Eleanor from Queen Mary University of London tells us about her experience as a volunteer mentor on the STAR Equal Access mentoring project. In November and December 2021, STAR mentors supported 41 refugees and people seeking asylum to apply for university.
The STAR mentoring project is an opportunity for university students to mentor and guide refugees and people seeking asylum through the long and arduous UCAS process. UCAS applications are a minefield of questions and ask for a lot of information – it’s confusing even to those of us who went through the British school system! The mentoring programme trains STAR members (all of whom are university students and applied through UCAS themselves) to answer questions that come up whilst applying.
Why is mentoring so important?
I got involved with the mentoring project as I believe it is a basic right for higher education to be accessed by everyone, no matter their circumstances. Some mentees are halfway through a university programme and looking to continue, some are still at school about to graduate and some are going on to do their Masters and PhDs. There are so many people with high goals and aspirations who have been hindered by political, social or economic barriers they may have faced in their country of origin, on their journey, or while building new lives in the UK.
This is why I think the STAR mentoring programme is so important. It allowed me to use the privilege I have been afforded by my passport and circumstances to help those who face far more barriers to higher education than I did. Under this government, refugees and people seeking asylum are facing increasingly inhumane laws and barriers. I believe it is important for those of us who can to help as much as we are able.
How does the mentoring work?
The way the programme is structured allows each mentee to access help in a much more personalised manner than a FAQ page or Google would provide. The training that STAR mentors receive from UCAS and the STAR staff team is thorough and detailed, and I found I was able to answer any questions that the person I was matched with asked. I was also able to offer tailored support. With the young person I mentored, we made an extremely detailed plan on what his personal statement was going to say. He was having difficulty with how to start, how to analyse what skills he had that were applicable to his course, and the structure of the statement. By the end of the session we had to decide what to include and what not to as he had so much to talk about! I like to believe he came out of the session not only feeling more confident about how to apply, but also more confident about the outcome of his application (I did point out he is far more skilled and has far more experience than I had, and I got into uni!).
Much of the volunteer work I have done in the past has been rewarding, but also heavy. Whilst volunteer work often is fun, the mentoring project stood out to me in particular as the relaxed nature of the meetings meant we could joke and laugh whilst also getting the work done! It gave us the opportunity to have an open conversation with no judgement about what aspect of the application people are struggling with. I also enjoyed meeting so many new people, mentees and other mentors, who share the same views and values, and the environment of both the online and in person sessions was definitely a very positive one!
A word to those who wants to get involved…
To anyone thinking of getting involved, I would say… Do it! I had a really fun time meeting all kinds of people and because the work is so personal and one-on-one, you really leave feeling you have made a difference. It is so easy in a world where it seems there is a new tragedy every day that we must fight against, and the fight is always difficult, to feel hopeless and as though there is nothing we can do to help. The mentoring programme reminded me that isn’t true. There is so much we can do to help people overcome the barriers that government policy has imposed on them. It is important to keep fighting the ‘big stuff’ like policy and legislation, but let us not forget those surviving in the meantime. The STAR mentoring programme is an amazing opportunity to help break down barriers now and help the individual – because, collectively, we are making a huge difference.
How you can get involved:
Find your local STAR group here – make a real difference, meet new people and learn new skills.
No STAR group at your university? Join our growing network of student groups. We want to hear from you.
Are you a university student from a refugee and asylum-seeking background in the UK? Join the Equal Access Network.