An Interview with Student Welfare Reps

A photograph designed to illustrate the article. It is of a student, hunched over her desk. The only light in her room is coming from a bright laptop screen.

My time as a Student Welfare Rep – I loved it and loathed it in equal measure. On one hand, I got to meet lots of new people and learn new things. It also boosted my confidence because I felt like I had found my place in the college community. But this came with a price: my own welfare was also affected massively. Student Welfare is supposed to be a way of providing basic Peer Support to other members of your college and signposting them to further help when necessary. In reality it ended up being a much more emotionally taxing role than this. I found that it was left to us as a team of three students to provide much of the extensive support needed by our peers in a way that we were not appropriately trained for. 

Over lockdown I reflected on these experiences a lot and was eager to see whether others had felt the same. I decided to interview three ex-Welfare Reps from three different Oxford colleges to find out their views on Oxford’s welfare systems and how taking on this role impacted their own wellbeing. 

All words in this article are the Reps’ own, but they are referred to as Rep A, B, and C to preserve anonymity. 

Hi all, thank you so much for talking to me today! So, let’s dive straight in. Firstly, how long did you do Student Welfare for?

A:  One year, plus a term of experience prior to this as a Peer Supporter.

B: Two years. One as Freshers’ Welfare Rep and the second as the actual JCR Welfare Rep.

C: I was a Welfare Rep for a year and a Peer Supporter for a term or two before that.

What training did you have before taking this position?

A: 30 hours of Peer Support Training at the University Counselling Service.

B: An hour and a bit with the Junior Deans. We also took ourselves off to the SU’s Welfare Rep Training which was again one session. It was learning on the go rather than being prepared. 

C: I also had 30 hours of Peer Support Training at the University Counselling Service and a more informal chat with the college Chaplain who is the Welfare Coordinator.

Can you tell me a highlight of doing Student Welfare?

A: The people I met. My fellow JCR Welfare team became incredible friends who I may not have otherwise spent loads of time with. Also, getting to know the lovely humane people dotted about the university structure who really care and want to help. That was really inspiring and gave me more optimism than I had previously had. 

B: I just made a lot of friends. I felt like I was someone people trusted and that was really nice. Being able to be around and make a positive impact on the lives of your peers was really nice. Whether that was worth everything else… I don’t know. This question quite surprised me which says something. 

C: I think just getting to know loads of people better. Getting to know the other Peer Supporters from other colleges that we trained with and the freshers too. It was good to make friends from different years and different colleges.

What about a lowlight of doing Student Welfare?

A: The moments you realised that the people you were trying to help were going to be failed at some point and watching the effect that had on my Welfare colleagues. That was very difficult… that feeling of knowing we were hitting brick walls, and despite our apparent position as some kind of power, there was nothing we could do about it. 

B: The anxiety and stuff it caused me at the time was bad. The worst thing, I think, was that I was really good friends with the other Welfare Rep going in, but the job took a big toll on my mental health and that meant it lumbered them with even more work. I think they, very reasonably, resented me for it. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to explain things to them at the time. Our friendship has never recovered from that… I really regret that from my time as Welfare Rep. 

C: I had a few dips in my mental health during my time as Welfare Rep and I felt like there wasn’t really an opportunity to get out or take a few weeks to look after yourself. You couldn’t really practice self-care properly. We ran an event nearly every week and because it was only me and one other Welfare Rep, I couldn’t really bail on him. 

How did being a Student Welfare Rep impact your own wellbeing?

A: Personally, it hugely helped my wellbeing. I hadn’t found a hobby until this point and I found work far easier when it was alongside something else. I also realised how much I loved doing that kind of thing. I’d previously found my college community challenging, but this gave me a way to connect with people on a level where I could empathise. That made me feel like I had a place in the college community which I felt like I hadn’t had before. 

More personally, I’d previously been in a relationship with someone who was very unwell, and it was abusive – there were no boundaries about the help I was ‘supposed’ to give. With Student Welfare, there was a Code of Conduct and there was always a distance between me and the person I was supporting. There were boundaries imposed by someone other than just myself. With the exception of being rattled, distressed, upset, or having a cry after a difficult conversation, it still felt (relative to my other experience) quite healthy. It really helped me.

B: Not well. I really struggled and I felt really out of my depth at times. The stuff we had to deal with was just so bad, way above our pay grade. Even though we were just meant to be signposting people to support elsewhere, it was just this feeling of being responsible for things I couldn’t control. You’re told to have boundaries and look after yourself. That’s easy to say but a lot harder to do. I’d never really struggled with my mental health up until that point, but it got to a stage where I was just crying in the library toilets thinking this isn’t how things should be. I couldn’t do really simple things, even just reading my messages in case there was welfare stuff on there. 

C: The first term I found it really difficult. It was Michaelmas so I felt personally very responsible for all of the freshers. Whenever I knew that one of them was having a hard time, I would end up really worried about it. I ended up having to speak to a counsellor about it and that was really helpful. It got much easier after that and by Hilary the freshers had formed their own friendship groups too. 

So, did you feel well supported whilst in this role?

A: No. I felt supported by my team of immediate peers and there were kind, lovely individuals like the College Mentor, the counsellors, and some tutors. That was an amazing resource and they were all very supportive. But structurally? No. I felt there was no infrastructure there to protect us and we were regularly put in positions which resulted in us having to deal with the fall out. So, there was support but it was based on the good will of the odd nice person, it wasn’t structural. 

B: Yeah, I did. In the systems we were running, my concerns were always heard, and I always had people to talk to. We met with the Deans once a week to see how things were going and when my mental health was bad, they helped. I can fault much of how colleges handle welfare services but the way those individuals treated me was great. But that’s quite a worrying point. Even with all of the support in the world, the job just kind of squashed me. 

C: I definitely felt supported by the Counselling Service but not so much by college. The Chaplain was lovely and I think the Deans tried their best, but I think if they’d been a bit more hands on, that would’ve been helpful.

Do you think Student Welfare works?

A: It depends what you think it’s there for. I think if you’re judging how well it works based on how well Welfare Teams can deliver support and information then yeah, it works, but it is only ever as good as the team delivering it which is based on all kinds of factors. However, I think Welfare has the potential to represent student interests and I don’t think it works on that front because I don’t think there is sufficient interest in hearing it.

B: I think some bits of it work. The general idea that students have a role to play in the welfare of their peers is probably correct but the amount of importance we put on that has to be really, really low. The role of students as Welfare Officers shouldn’t be firefighting – it should be the baseline of making sure people feel included. At my college, there was a huge loss of trust in the system. Colleges need to step up and provide more professional support. I have a firm belief that there is a role for students in terms of welfare provision but the way we do it right now is not it. 

C: I think the idea of Welfare Reps as a whole is a good one, but I think the uni puts far too much pressure on the Welfare Reps to be providing the main source of welfare. They need to be doing more themselves. 

What more could Oxford be doing to support students’ mental health?

A: Listening to its Reps and that doesn’t just mean on an SU level. It means that areas of the university that are not obviously linked to welfare should be listening. They need to be ensuring colleges have welfare systems that allow a JCR Welfare Team to work but also to escalate things appropriately and that needs to be a two-way dialogue. There needs to be more understanding that you can’t just throw more money and more counsellors at the problem. You need to think why isn’t this working and what’s going wrong. You can’t work that out if you don’t speak to the people who see the extremes of this, the first-line defence. 

B: Having more understanding that lots of things can feed into maintaining good mental health. Oxford is such a hotspot for mental health issues, the terms are so short with squeezing everything into eight weeks and living at one hundred miles an hour… why do we do that? I just don’t understand it. When we’re talking about welfare, we tend to mean firefighting the problems once they’ve developed but the focus should be on prevention. 

Also, addressing the relationship between welfare and disciplinary issues – up until recently in my college, it was exactly the same people dealing with the same things. Students were so scared to talk about welfare issues for fear of being disciplined. There needs to be an impartial third person. The college Welfare System is designed with all the best intentions but there are massive differences between colleges and no systematic effort to try to understand how welfare is best delivered in the college environment. The discrepancy is incredible. 

C: I think having an actual designated mental health member of staff in each college would help. Right now, it’s usually a tutor or another member of college who just happens to have a welfare role too. Having more people whose main job it is to help students would be so much better.

I just wanted to thank the three Reps for taking time to do this interview. I think it shows just how taxing a role Student Welfare can be and that there are some major areas for improvement in the system. If you are a Welfare Rep, I hope this helps in making you feel a little less alone. Please seek help if Student Welfare is affecting your well-being – your welfare is important too! 

By Charlotte Rose