Leslie Shoemaker: inspired by Aurora

Leslie Shoemaker is a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology. She took part in Aurora Dublin in 2016-17. Since completing Aurora, Leslie has set up the ESTeEM (Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring) programme at her campus and is now the programme’s coordinator. Here Leslie reflects on how she was able to use elements from Aurora, such as mentorship, to inspire ESTeEM’s format.

When the application process opened for Aurora I knew immediately this was not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. I was stuck in a rut at work for a variety of reasons. Although I had managed large projects and events in the past I felt like I was lacking in formal training in leadership and management so didn’t have the confidence to know whether I was doing it right. I have picked up leadership skills over the years but I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on why I needed these skills and how I had acquired them. My leadership decisions had an effect on other individuals as well as the projects I was working on, I didn’t want to create an adverse impact due to my lack of knowledge about leadership.

When writing my application, I realised that although I wanted these leadership skills for myself, I could also try and become an ‘everyday’ role model for my female students. The module I teach is for first year students on the soft skills needed in Computer Science, Engineering and Science subjects. It would not be uncommon to have small numbers of female students, if any at all, in what can be very male dominated classes. I began to see how Aurora was an opportunity to bring my knowledge back to these young women and make a positive impact in their lives. I just needed to work out how I could do this effectively.

I was delighted when I found out my Aurora application had been successful.

The Aurora sessions and reading materials provided me with an opportunity to step back and reflect while also learning new leadership tips, tools, and skills. I began to understand how ‘normal’ my thoughts, feelings and experiences were. But regardless of how much I was getting out of these sessions for myself, I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling there was more I could do for my female students.

In March 2017 when I was a little over halfway through the programme, I had a brain wave: adapt the Aurora model to a target audience of female students studying Engineering on the site where I work (the Dublin Institute of Technology has two Engineering campuses). During Aurora each participant is given a mentor. My idea was to recruit female Engineers who are working in industry to mentor young women who are studying engineering. The mentoring would happen over a series of five lunches each academic year and the mentor would ideally stay with the student for the duration of her academic career in this college. After a couple of phone calls and meetings not only was my immediate boss behind me but I had two major international engineering companies, Arup and Schneider Electric, sign up to the project. The ESTeEM programme, Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring, was born.

On 9 October 2017 we had our launch and our first lunch. Currently I have 35 young women participating in the initiative and they range from first year students right through to post graduate students. In addition, there are fourteen female mentors from Schneider Electric and Arup who are graciously giving their time, knowledge and experience to this programme. The buzz in the room during this first lunch was amazing. Both the mentors and the students were clearly excited during the event and the feedback from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive.

Despite this great start I recognise I still have some battles to fight such as helping some of the current female engineering students see why a programme like this is of relevance (I have had about a 60% uptake on the programme from the students who are studying engineering on this campus) and I would like to expand the ESTeEM programme to the other engineering campus. With thanks to Aurora I have a better idea of how to approach the challenges I face but know that I will get there.

I also understand that I will make mistakes along the way but I know this is part of my leadership development. The standards I was holding myself to in order to ‘prove’ my worth because I am a woman working in a male dominated area are not as rigid these days, which is a nice change for me (and very possibly others who I work with). I am thankful I was provided with the opportunity to take time out to learn more about myself and leadership but I am hopeful that ESTeEM will make a difference in the same way for my students Aurora has for me.

So fellow Auroran’s embrace the opportunities that come your way or the ones that you create and feel able to take risks, even if it means feeling really uncomfortable because that will pass in time. We are often our own worst critics, let’s show ourselves some self-compassion.


If you would like to find out more about ESTeEM you can contact Leslie here.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?

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David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
    Book Review: What can governance in higher education learn from other sectors?Book review: Nonprofit Governance
    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

10 ways to engage students in online learning and teaching

Dr Paul Gentle shares good practice in getting the most from involving students in change projects.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Changing the Learning Landscape lies in the opportunities for learning about inspiring and effective practice.

The Leading in the Learning Landscape Network is a good example of this. Our most recent network event, on 27 February, brought together colleagues from 14 institutions which are diversely passionate in their commitment to driving forward strategic change in online learning and teaching.

There were two powerful triggers for engaging sets of conversations on the day, and both shared common attributes of engaging students in the change process, and of being strongly supported by senior management teams in their respective institutions (the University of Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam University).

One fruitful outcome of group conversations across the day was sharing a set of pointers to good practice in how to engage students in significant change in learning and teaching.

These are:

1. Use wikis or Google docs to enable students to play an active part in strategy development (and feed back to students on which of their ideas have been acted on)
2. Work to build in student engagement into teaching practices by academic teams
3. Bear in mind that students don’t know “everything” about technologies or their potential application; but they can help academics to consider how to incorporate technological innovations within programmes
4. Paying attention to ‘hygiene factors’ is important in planning student engagement activities (including timing, availability of food, refreshments and other small incentives)
5. Seek students’ views on what good looks like (‘What needs to go right for you?’)
6. Incorporate feedback to students on the quality of their contributions to the change process; make sure this has developmental benefits for students
7. Don’t try to engage students in whole-institution change conversations: keep it meaningful by relating to their experience at programme or department level
8. Make sure it matters to students; articulate what’s in it for them
9. Get diverse views by engaging in different ways, using different media
10. Assume students are reasonable, and don’t expect all staff of an institution to change at the same pace and in consistent ways.

We do hope very much that as many as possible of the 60 institutions which have engaged with CLL in 2013-14 will join the network in future. The next network, on Framing and Enhancing Impact in CLL Projects, will be 25 May 2014 in Liverpool. To book a place contact: Bal Sandhu

Dr Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s director of programmes and programme lead on Changing the Learning Landscape

Georgia on my mind: A distinctive experience

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by Dr Paul Gentle

I was fortunate to be able to visit several higher education institutions in and around Atlanta, Georgia last week, in the generous company of a cohort of Top Management Programme 31 delegates. The programme was led by Dr Tom Kennie & Professor Robin Middlehurst. I was most struck by Georgia Gwinnett, a public undergraduate, teaching-only college whose mission is to be a 21st century access institution. It was newly-built and launched in 2006 with 118 inaugural students, now providing a liberal arts education to almost 10,000. The campus provides beautifully-designed buildings and sports and leisure facilities which are well-used by students. Given Georgia Gwinnett College’s mission to engage large numbers of students whose parents did not experience higher education themselves, tuition fees are far from prohibitive, and are limited to a full-time year equivalent of under $3,500 – just over £2,000.

Visiting on a Friday (often a quiet day on US campuses) gives a tangible sense of the engagement and inspiration demonstrated by Georgia Gwinnett’s students. It is immediately obvious that the college and its organisational culture is built on clear and focused educational principles:

  • Harnessing innovation in learning technology to support student success
  • Providing an integrated educational experience in which service learning and other extra-curricular activities play a key role and are actively managed by the College
  • Engagement by all faculty in teaching and mentoring as a hallmark of the institution

There is a deliberately-stated intention to act as a model for innovation in education and administration. All on-campus services and facilities that are not directly linked to delivering the curriculum are outsourced, and the college was designed in this way from the outset.

The founding president, Dan Kaufman, and current president Stas Preczewski, are both former senior officers from West Point Military Academy, and they have applied their experience and vision to creating and sustaining an institution which breeds success – the opening sentences of the prospectus declare ‘Failure is not an option.’

As one dean at Georgia Gwinnett put it, teaching staff are selected on the basis of ‘passion for teaching, and liking students’. Faculty are actively involved in student support, and are expected to be available for students with tutorial needs outside class hours. Every course handbook has the mobile number of the teacher printed clearly on the front cover, and this college-provided phone is meant to elicit a fast response. In addition to providing academic support for students in class and across the campus, there is also a 24-hour online tutoring service for every major undergraduate programme offered on campus.

Despite a short history, Georgia Gwinnett has build a strong reputation quickly, and is already ranked in the top 10% of colleges nationwide for academic challenge, student/faculty interaction outside of the classroom, and for active and collaborative learning. It has also achieved remarkable results for student retention, performing at least ten percentage points higher than the average for state colleges in the United States for first year retention. For a non-selective institution, this pays tribute to the supportive and challenging learning environment offered to students. It also reflects the practice of having maximum class group sizes of 25, and a compulsory attendance requirement.

The power behind the rapid growth of Georgia Gwinnett’s numbers lies in word of mouth: where live-transforming examples of student success affect families, this also impacts on communities, and ultimately, Gwinnett County and beyond. The most frequently reported aspect of student feedback is consistently about one aspect: the quality of the teaching staff. The key message which is now well established in the community is ‘Faculty here will help you make it through’.

Leadership

There is a clear purpose for Georgia Gwinnett, that of inspiring students to contribute to society. This links to the value of service, and is intended to ensure that the college contributes to the long-term civic growth and sustainability of Gwinnett County and its hinterland. Importantly, the current ethnic mix in the County corresponds to the predicted balance for the United States as a whole by 2040 . This is roughly 35% African-American, 35% white and 25% Latino. Georgia Gwinnett sees itself as an overt prototype of higher education for the 21st century, and is attracting considerable interest from its peers. Not only was it the first new four-year college founded in Georgia in more than 100 years; it was also the first four-year public college created in the United States in the 21st century.

Leadership is a key factor in the organisation of the college. It was set up deliberately without academic departments or departmental chairs, in order to avoid silo mentalities. Deans therefore manage within a model of distributed leadership, in which clusters of colleagues work together across academic programmes and thematic areas of responsibility overseen by associate deans.

In the week when I visited Georgia Gwinnett with a group of leaders from across the UK, the college had just succeeded in securing accreditation for its degree programmes for a further ten-year period, with feedback from the accrediting body which was entirely positive. One aspect which was found to be an outstanding example of leadership practice concerned strategy: Georgia Gwinnett’s strategic plan is a dynamic reality, constantly being updated and enacted. The accrediting body had never before seen this happen before in a higher education institution!

My thanks to Tom Kennie and Robin Middlehurst for setting up such a comprehensive programme of visits, and for all their inspiring work on TMP over the last 14 years

Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s Director of Programmes and from autumn 2013 will lead Top Management Programme 32 onwards. To find out more about TMP visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/TMP

Leadership in Saudi Arabia: women’s perspective

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By Rebecca Nestor

In June of this year I was privileged to work with a group of sixteen high-achieving women students at the University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on a new five-day programme to support their personal and leadership development. I adapted and customised a programme from one devised for male students delivered by Leadership Foundation associate Glyn Jones in 2012*. The programme aimed to provide a supportive group learning experience leaving participants with insight into their individual personality type and personal leadership style and understanding of high-performing teams, how organisations work, leadership principles, influencing, networking and organisational change. The programme was part of the University of Dammam’s contribution to the current government’s efforts on improving women’s access to the professions.

Dammam gave the Leadership Foundation a high-quality brief, including feedback on the 2012 programme and how they wanted to see the young women’s programme take shape. Just as importantly, they put me in touch with Dr Mona Al-Sheikh, who teaches medicine and is also in the University’s medical education unit. Dr Al-Sheikh proved to be a great partner in the development of the programme. We talked via Skype and exchanged emails while I was adapting Glyn’s design. She gave me some excellent background on the prospective participants, from which I learned that they had been selected not just by their tutors but also by their peers, using criteria including morality and helpfulness as well as their academic performance. And they were, I was told, very enthusiastic about the programme and excited about the opportunity it represented for them. Mona encouraged me to focus the programme on helping participants to understand their own potential and to work together – so plenty of activities, team-based exercises, and personal reflection, processes that she explained would be relatively unlikely to form a part of their normal university studies.

With no previous visits to Saudi Arabia to inform my planning, I wondered what the participants’ previous experience of leadership would have been. In a segregated society, what role models would these young women have seen and how relevant or appropriate would my leadership background feel to them? How could we talk about women’s leadership in ways that respected Saudi culture, Islamic values and my own principles?

The answer turned out to be threefold. First, I drew on my experience of women-only personal development programmes and made community-building a key part of the design. The group started with personal timelines, focusing on important events in their personal lives; they worked in pairs and small groups, returning to the small groups several times throughout the programme so as to build a supportive network; and they practised giving and receiving feedback to each other. As part of this community-building, I shared my own experiences of leadership at community level and to some extent opened up my own life to their scrutiny. One participant said at the end that she had shared things with others on the programme that she had never previously discussed outside her family. Secondly, we discussed and articulated our values explicitly during the programme, both in leadership stories and in the practical activities (see photos). This enabled a focus on the morality of leadership, and of Islamic leadership, which seemed to me to resonate powerfully with participants. And thirdly, my colleague Mona acted as a role model herself, discussed other women leaders, and brought in female leaders in days 4 and 5 of the programme so that participants could hear their stories through the frame of the ideas we had discussed in days 1-3.

I’ve learned a lot from the experience. My cultural antennae have been sharpened, which can only help my consultancy skills; I took some risks in design and delivery, and the programme benefited from it; and on a personal level, visiting Saudi Arabia (albeit only for a few days) was an amazing learning experience for me, and I loved getting to know the women in our programme and understanding a little about their lives. I had a couple of delightful social gatherings, including a trip to the mall, and was the subject of traditional Arabic generosity and hospitality.  I got some great advice on how to fix my hijab properly (though I fear making it stay in place is something that only comes with more practice than I had time for). The photo shows me in the abaya or long gown which was a present from Mona, and with my hijab in place thanks to help from the students.

Reflecting on the relevance of this experience for leaders in UK higher education, I’m struck by the power of drawing on one’s own personal experience, and how this helps engage with others with whom one might have thought one had little in common.

*The 2013 run of the Dammam programme for male students took place in Greenwich, London 26 – 30 August and was led by Glyn Jones. 

Rebecca Nestor is the Director of Learning For Good Ltd, and is an associate and regional co-ordinator of the Leadership Foundation