Joanna, an experienced SEN specialist, school leader, and Student Support Services Mentor, was kind enough to give us a few moments of her time. Her insight into the role of a student support services mentor was fascinating, and we talked about how her background in counselling and mental health has supported university students.
Read our post on Autism Awareness Day and Autism Acceptance Week
Check out our interview with a Student Support Services Tutor
What previous experience do you have supporting students overcoming barriers?
I have a long career in SEN education, where I eventually moved into leadership – primarily working with children with severe ASD. I’d say I have always supported
students and young people who aren’t necessarily ‘typical’ and worked hard to find creative ways to help young people move forward.
I am also a qualified mental health counsellor and have delivered counselling to adults and young people.
What led you to student support at university?
I found that my previous experience was very relevant to university students. Knowing that for young people with autism, university life can be a very challenging environment, I felt confident that with my experience and professional qualifications in mental health support I would be able to make a positive effect.
Has the role of student support services mentor been what you expected so far?
One aspect that wasn’t quite what I expected, was that we are not really providing counselling alongside the mentoring.
I’ve got to be very mindful to keep everything linked to their work – I don’t probe or ask questions on the personal side of things as I recognise that’s not part of my role here. However, if I notice something that is of concern then I know I can inform Prospero and that the appropriate support will be there.
I tread a delicate pathway because I am a counsellor at heart. I’ve discovered that the young people I’m mentoring through student support services are very capable and driven. The best way I can help them is to guide them toward reaching their potential.
What personal qualities do you think make a great student support services mentor?
I think empathy definitely. To be able to help somebody to help themselves, you have to try and understand what it’s like to be them.
If a student speaks or acts in a way that says, ‘I’m overwhelmed‘, it’s not helpful to say ‘oh no, you don’t need to worry…’ It’s really important to acknowledge what they are going through, before looking at it in more detail.
Understanding that that is their reality. It’s hard because you have to have that patience. What you need is to unpick – family other students.
What is the most rewarding aspect of the role?
It’s always so rewarding developing a trusting relationship through listening and using clear communication. It’s especially pleasing when this takes a little time, but then, sometimes when you’re least expecting it you get that ‘break through’ moment. [More on this later!]
What tools do you use to support students to keep up with and meet multiple deadlines?
I offer timetable help – breaking down an intimidating task is much easier if we can itemise a list. It’s astonishing how the workload demand varies in different degree subjects. One of my students has 6 essays to hand in a year, another has 3 a week.
Students with autism they’ll launch into telling you about an assignment they’ve got to do the ‘graphics assignment’ aren’t aware that I’m not studying the subject myself. This keeps me on my toes, as I systematically work through make sure she’s on track.
How has the pandemic affected your role? What impact has the pandemic had on students?
Navigating the support system is one of the main difficulties. With the COVID-19 situation, many support facilities closed down or reduced their service. The reality is, things are not quite back up and running yet.
There is still a lot of online working and lectures. This is not great for students in their first year. Studying something like Journalism becomes very difficult – the ability to interview people, writing reports on events – that’s been stilted. In many ways, the practical aspect of university isn’t there.
Networking is not so possible. Also, there are very limited social structures for those away from home. I don’t think freshers’ week will have been as fun, sadly.
This is why Prospero student support services are so important. They give students that point of contact, that face-to-face support during a very difficult time.
What has the experience of working with Prospero been like for you so far?
Sean and Tom are really great – it really struck me back in November at how efficient they were – they always get straight back to me; always on the end of the phone, answer queries, give guidance on support offered. I’m really enjoying this new chapter in my career so far!
We hope you enjoyed reading our interview with Joanna, a Student Support Services Mentor, counsellor and SEND specialist working with University students. We’ll post part two in which we speak about specific strategies for supporting university students with autism.
If you would like to find out more about working with Prospero Student Support Services, then get in touch with the team here.