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Student Insight Panel - 28th September 2021

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Edited by Sarah Jane Russell, Thursday, 30 Sep 2021, 21:48

I was really pleased to be allowed to be part of the first Student Insights panel, representing Pride, the OU LGBTQ+ group. It was a lovely, friendly chat, and I really enjoyed taking part, meeting and talking to the other panel members. 

I thought it would be nice, since I’d taken some notes about the questions we were asked, to write them up and post them here, so people could read a bit more of an in-depth answer to some of them, and to make them accessible to anyone who doesn’t like or can’t access video, once the recording is available.

The original announcement for the session is here, in The Hoot.

The questions were asked by Patrice Belton, Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Sammi Wright, Projects Officer, EDI and Student Welfare.


Question 1: Please could you give us all an insight into your lived experience as an OU student?

I am just about to start my second year of studying at the Open University, after previously having been out of education for nearly 40 years. It was something I’d thought about doing for a while, but found things kept getting in the way of; not least choosing a course! But I think I really knew all along I wanted to study psychology, it was just choosing which pathway to take that had me in a bind. I found the Combined STEM BSc only by chance, and found that it let me choose all the modules I liked (plus so many other exciting things!) and put together the shape of study I wanted. It was very exciting to find that option, and to also have the chance to be a woman in STEM. 

I have also really enjoyed finding the sense of community here. Whilst there is a physical campus at Milton Keynes where ground-breaking, world class research is taking place, it’s wrong to say that the OU doesn’t otherwise have a campus. It does, and it has the biggest one in the world, made up of its students, staff and alumni, connected to each other by this fantastic bond we have in studying here. I thought studying at the OU might be lonely, and isolating; just words on a screen between myself and a tutor. Instead, I’ve had a wonderful tutor, who let our tutor group become strong, supportive and good friends to each other, and guided us through developing our skills in an amazing and genuinely empowering way. And I found whole communities out here within the OU, from WhatsApp and Facebook groups for my module, to the Disabled Students Group, the Pride LGBTQ+ Group, the OUSA forums, and how the university works, who represents us and what policies there are in place to make sure things are done right. This isn’t any kind of second rate university experience. Everything is out here, if people just take a look. Every day, I seem to find something new!

Question 2What were your fears and concerns when you were starting out and how were you able to face them?

My biggest fear was that having been so long out of education, I wouldn’t be able to do this. To make this huge commitment and have all this money committed to it, as well, was something massive, and part of the reason it took me so long to take the plunge. But I knew I wanted to do this, and was determined I would follow it through this time, now I’d found the course I wanted - even though I managed to cunningly coincide it with my worst year ever as far as my health was concerned. There was a lot of responsibility to take on, not just with the cost, but with the time and effort I would need to be prepared to put aside and prioritise for this, and I didn’t know if I could do that. I wanted very much not to fail at this, and the best way to avoid failing is to avoid doing - but that way, you avoid living too, and I wanted to live. I wanted a chance to achieve something, and to do it for me, because I could. Getting my first TMA back, and seeing some positive feedback was one of my happiest moments ever. Recognising I could do the work, and I had the potential to learn at this level was truly life changing. I cannot thank the Open University and everyone who helped me get here enough for giving me this opportunity.


Question 3: Where have you turned to for support throughout your study journey?

In applying for the dreaded Student Finance (and let’s all take a moment to thank the SFE website for being so awful to deal with) I found that I could also apply for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), which meant even more forms and documents to find. And then more. Then some more for good luck. Then the first ones again, but slightly differently this time… Scanning and emailing everything so I had all the hard copies of everything goes highly recommended. 

But once everything had got where it needed to, and I got to the point of being assessed, it was a total game changer. All my health assessments so far have been by people like PIP and DWP, people trying to avoid giving you anything and trying to make you feel like you are making everything up and trying to mislead them about your capabilities. This wasn’t that. This was someone who took what your doctor and other healthcare specialists said as correct and accurate, and then asked you for more details, face to face (tho via zoom still) to see what help they could offer to make your life better. I nearly cried. Please do this if you have any physical or mental health disabilities. The funding is there to help you, and it’s not often you get to say that. 

The difference the equipment I have has made to my abilities to sit and study is still astounding to me. I struggled so much at the start of the year, and by the end, it was so much simpler. It’s not just equipment that has helped me, but software, that I had patient and thorough training with, and a lovely learning mentor who I’ll be working with again this year. Don’t assume there is nothing out there that can support you. You might be surprised.

And no, DSA doesn’t affect your benefits, and even if you’re doing 120 credits a year, the Open University is still counted as part time education, and won’t affect your Universal Credit. 

The Open University also has an excellent Disability Support team who will help guide you through all this, as well as make sure your tutor knows everything they need to about you, and knows what extra support you may need, and be ready to offer it too.

I was lucky in my first year to have a wonderful tutor and tutor group, and a tutor who encouraged us to use our tutor group forum to support each other and answer each other’s questions. It made it feel like we were part of an active learning environment, where we could discuss our module, but also films we’d seen or books we’d read that we’d felt were relevant to what we were learning (or sometimes not relevant at all!)

The Disabled Students Group was really great to find, and I just wish I’d known about it sooner, before starting out trying to apply for DSA. But then I wish I’d applied for DSA sooner too. They and the LGBTQ+ Pride group have been lovely, supportive places, with plenty going on and lots of things to get involved with, whether you’re interested in activism, quizzes, book clubs or just belonging. They are welcoming, inclusive environments and I’m really grateful to the people who put so much time and effort into running them so well. 

I’ve also found a lot of support on WhatsApp and Facebook groups. I know these are unofficial and can sometimes get a little contentious, but I’ve found that 99% of people out there just want to support each other, and misunderstandings can quickly be cleared up with a swift bit of oil on troubled waters. I’ve seen people supported through some remarkable, profound life events through reaching out to WhatsApp groups and it’s really been quite life affirming.

If you do see any behaviour online anywhere in connection with the Open University that concerns, upsets or distresses you, remember that all Facebook and WhatsApp groups will have an admin you can message, and that the OU Social Media conduct rules apply at all times, and you can report breaches of these rules. Try not to report things without having a go at fixing them first, of course, but there are policies in place to protect everyone. 


Question 4If you were stranded on a desert island, what song would you take as your “Desert Island Study Track”? 

I love having music on whilst I study - or do anything else. I’ve always enjoyed having music on whilst I write, and finding the right soundtrack for what I’m writing and the characters I’m writing about. If it’s music I know well, any lyrics don’t bother me, but I know lots of people can’t work with music on that has words to it. If I really have to focus hard, I have purely instrumental playlists too, and differently themed classical lists for different moods. Film soundtracks are brilliant for this. I really love making Spotify playlists for different moods and situations.

In thinking about this, obviously I came up with an entire education-themed playlist rather than one song. Feel free to browse my other strange selections. I’m really into Swamp Grass at the moment…

If I had to pick one track that was all I could play, and was somehow relevant to my study, then I’m studying Psychology, so maybe I’d go for Frontier Psychiatrist by Avalanches. I don’t think I’d ever get bored of that. 


Question 5What are your go-to procrastination nibbles or go to “Desert Island Study Snacks”? 

Now, snacks are location dependent. If you’re sat at your keyboard typing up your TMA, or even with your laptop on your lap, you don’t want anything sticky or crumbly. Carrot sticks are ideal, tho you should probably avoid combining them with hummus or other dips in case of drippage. Unsalted nuts and raisins. Coconut. Dried banana chips. Sliced apple. Apple sliced really thin fresh from the fridge is lovely.

Then there are chocolate orange malteser buttons. What a world we’re living in. Chupa chupp lollies. Did you know Dali designed their logo? Gummi bears. Maoam.

For sitting down comfortably with a book or taking notes in your nice notebook you can be more relaxed. A bowl of cereal is great any time of day. Crisps are great, and come in a magnificent multitude of styles and flavours, plus now is the time to introduce dip. Popcorn is wonderful, especially if you make it at home. Such a great smell, plus it’s healthy! (Depending what you put on it). Ice cream is always good, and there’s such high quality offerings out there, too. Be European and have some meze or tapas. Stuffed peppers, falafel, tiny pickles, olives. Nocellara olives, or ones stuffed with garlic. Or in a well-made dry martini

Oh! I know! I choose cheese and pineapple, served as is traditional in the form of a hedgehog. I’m very much into rediscovering the delights of 1970s cookery, and serving up cheese and pineapple hedgehogs for people’s birthdays. Maybe some vegan mini sausages on sticks, too. 


Question 6: Let’s finish with JOY – what brings joy to your life? All the better if it’s OU related!

In all honesty, this has brought joy to my life. Being a student, finding out that I could do this, that there was a place for me here, and that I had something to offer has been the source of so much joy. I’ve not just been able to start learning again, but studying, note taking and writing academically? I’ve never done academic writing before. All my writing has been either fiction or what could loosely be called journalistic. This was a whole new world, with so much to unlearn!

But having something to say, asking and answering questions and recognising that my opinions not only matter, but are worth sharing, and people want to know what they are - that’s been amazing. Truly life changing. 

Studying with the OU has brought me so much joy, much more than I imagined it would - and I imagined a lot. I hope it can keep doing so for the hugely diverse, remarkable and eclectic student body that is its heart, and who are here because they know this is a place they’ll be welcomed, accepted and supported, and find a safe space to work and study, free from discrimination and hostility. I hope that never changes, and I will certainly do everything in my power to make sure that stays the case.

*****


Thank you so much for letting me be a part of this, and I hope I get further opportunities to take part in more events in the future.


SJR

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