Liam Walsh: “Engaging with students means to engage with well-being.”
Let’s get started with your role within EUniWell. You've been active in EUniWell for a while now, could you tell us a bit about how your involvement started?
I think around March 2021 was my initial contact with EUniWell. If I remember rightly, it was just an email that came through explaining what EUniWell was, how it was starting up and that they wanted to start a local Student Board at the University of Birmingham, where I study. I replied to that email, went along to the introduction session and luckily was given a spot in this first local Birmingham Student Board. I was a member of this Board for two years and it was in my second year that I was elected as the Vice Chair for the Birmingham Board. Then it was in February of this year that I was, very fortunately, elected as the new Chief Student Officer for the wider European Board.
Congrats again, we're so happy to have you! You've also previously done an internship with EUniWell. Did you take something away from this experience that may help you in your new role as CSO?
Yeah. So that was the Mayor’s Placement Scheme that I did in conjunction with Birmingham City Council last summer. It was a role in their public health department and for six weeks I was looking at women's health issues. Taking part in that was almost a coincidence, since it was a EUniWell opportunity, but I didn't actually hear about it through EUniWell channels, but through the university’s channels. In terms of helping me with my role, that is kind of relevant because it shows where those avenues are for student participation and where people can find out about these opportunities. As it was the first of those internships, it proved to be a useful insight to know that there are great offers available for students. Also that the variety of them is well beyond central governance within the Student Board and attending meetings as a student representative. There's wider opportunities both related to education, but also work experience. And luckily for me, that internship was tied to my personal and academic interests, so it was a perfect combination of everything in that way.
It's always good to have some first-hand experience to share when trying to get new people involved. EUniWell's mission is to promote well-being for all members of the university community and beyond. How do you think students can contribute to this mission and maybe also how can EUniWell support students when it comes to their own well-being?
As a university alliance, it's important to remember at all times that students are at the heart of that, from my perspective anyway. Especially because students are the people that experience the university system and university life 24/7 for three or four years while they're at university. And since well-being is relevant in every-day life, engaging with students means to engage with well-being. Therefore, as we are a university alliance, it's vital to engage with that student experience, especially since we're very lucky in our unique position where we're able to engage with students across a range of cultures in different countries. Because as we know, the understanding of what well-being is, even as a word in the English language, is very subjective and open to interpretation. And when you widen that out to other languages, it becomes even more interesting since everyone's individual understanding of well-being is different. And so being able to get students together from all these different universities, all these different countries, is very exciting because we're able to address well-being and deal with it in ways that otherwise would be much more restricted.
Yes, definitely. I think we all agree that students are at the heart of EUniWell. It's very important that they're engaged and that their voices are heard. I think that we've made some big strides in recent months or in the past year, especially in getting more students actively involved in EUniWell. In your opinion, what do you think are the most effective strategies for promoting student engagement in EUniWell’s programmes and initiatives, and what would you recommend to your fellow students?
Good question. I think the main way students find out about those opportunities is through our social media channels. I find, say at Birmingham, that almost every student follows the Instagram channel and when things are posted on there, then it's kind of an easy access. Whereas when things are sent through email, there are some students who are much more engaged with their emails than others. Some probably would only read them maybe once a week, once a month. But there are others who would see them every day. So it's just trying to access as many different channels as possible, as many different routes, because students can be quite fickle in what they choose to engage with. And again, obviously we have lots of different systems at our different universities. So I think just tapping into as many different ones as possible is a good strategy. I also think word of mouth is always an effective way, because I know from the opportunities I've been in that it's always useful when you have friends and other students asking: “Oh, what was that thing you were doing last week that I saw on your social media?” And the broadening of the opportunities, as you say, is exciting because it means there's more things for people to get involved with. And again, from the students perspective, it's important to have things on offer that cover different time frames, whether it's a three-week summer school or a six week internship, or a module that runs within their course for the whole term or being an active member of the student board throughout your entire university career. It's always important to have things on offer that last different amounts of time, because often students have plenty of other things going on, whether it's just their studies or extracurriculars. To put it into a metaphor, trying to fit a slice of EUniWell into the different portions that people have available is a really good thing to do.
Yes, that's a very good point. And regarding first-hand recommendations; do you have any favourite EUniWell activity that you recently participated in? One that made you say: “Yes, that's something that I want to carry forward and recommend to others”?
Most recently it was FestiWell. I only got to do one day of it unfortunately, but that was a really well-run experience. I think it was done really well and the thematic focus of the events and workshops was clearly tied to EUniWell. It didn't feel like a strange string of events happening in conjunction with this other project. It was very clearly cut that these events were focused on skills both for your well-being, but also your personal development and tied to university. That was a great opportunity to get students and staff from all universities in a room together, which is always exciting. Especially for networking and just meeting new people, that's always a very good thing, even if you might meet some people just during the events. But there's also other people that get to stay in touch and there's people that get to build on opportunities from the activities they took part in. It was really nice and exciting to see the variety of things happening, because not everyone was doing the same things. So you still get to hear about the other opportunities and the other events that were happening. I heard about a baking workshop that sounded very exciting that I didn't get to do.
Me neither, but I definitely enjoyed FestiWell very much as well. I think it's always very special getting together in person. Like you said, networking and seeing what everyone else is up to, because obviously with an international alliance, it doesn't happen that often. Okay, but now after these positives, perhaps you also have some constructive criticism. Where do you currently see potential for improvement within EUniWell when it comes to engaging and supporting students?
So this is actually what we focused on in our Student Board meeting and workshop during the Rector’s Assembly last week. We always try to set an objective for the next six months to have a goal to work towards. And what we are focusing on from now on is expanding the active student engagement and awareness of EUniWell and encouraging the bottom-up approach of student-led events. We want students to be able to advise and devise what they want to happen and the events they would like to see on their campuses related to well-being. I know from first hand experience with our Student Board that they're all very active and creative people that have lots of ideas. And again what may work well in one university may or may not work well in the other universities, so taking that local approach to well-being and student engagement is very important. Hopefully, by being able to develop and then implement these local events, we'll be able to increase that local engagement and awareness of EUniWell within other student bodies. Then that ties back to the longer-term opportunities where people will have some name recognition of EUniWell and the Alliance. This will help us build a firmer place within the student body to increase student engagement, which should then hopefully also translate to more active local student boards.
That sounds like some very useful input and like you've got a good strategy set for the future. You said you recently had your own meeting and workshop with the Student Board as part of the Rectors’ Assembly and that there are lots of ideas. How do you plan to ensure that those ideas, the student voices, are heard and represented within EUniWell's decision-making process.
I like to think of my role as a facilitator between the students and the management teams and the vice-rectors. To give an insight into what I do between our monthly meetings and leading up to our next meeting, myself, the student executives, and Tanya, our student coordinator, will be having smaller focus meetings with the local representatives from each of the universities. There, we’d like to discuss how student representation works at each university, what engagement with EUniWell looks like at the moment, and then do some planning for those local events that I mentioned. I think it's important to expand that engagement with us student representative beyond the once-a-month meeting and the occasional WhatsApp or Slack message, because I feel there can be too much distance between the ideas you come up with when having to wait a month to talk about them again, then maybe another month of planning them, and another month of doing them. So I think introducing these shorter periodic meetings focused on each local board will hopefully encourage a bit more of that active engagement and participation. This should also help to hold on to the ideas that we came up with and to see them delivered quicker - having a quicker turnaround. This should in turn also build some more enthusiasm for the local boards.
Amazing, thank you for sharing that! Aside from your role as facilitator, perhaps also mediator, do you as Chief Student Officer have your own slightly more personal vision for EUniWell in its next phase?
Something that I'm personally interested in when it comes to well-being is breaking it down to the individual level. A lot of that comes from my studies, my academic interests, where I've done a lot of work with identity and spaces and how to tie this together, and how that always comes back to the individuality of any person you engage with. I think that's something that EUniWell, as it moves to the next phase, should look to engage with more. First, trying to establish that well-being is as a broad concept, but then breaking it back down to the individual level. And then trying to understand that when you're dealing with well-being on a European level - how does that relate to each individual when everyone's experience of well-being is so different? I think that could be dealt with in many ways, but I'm always kind of an advocate for looking at intersectionality and recognising different factors of identity, whether that's gender or sexuality, race, even class can be important in a lot of universities. Dealing with that in many ways and trying to create those more specific individualised support programmes based on things like that could be interesting.
Yes, I think that's a very important perspective. And I really like the idea of not losing sight of the individuals that make up all of our different target groups. Regarding this vision, do you have a plan to work with other members of the EUniWell board to sway things in that direction?
I haven't got a set plan at the moment, but my vision would be, after we reach our current target for local events around September, to try and keep the momentum going and keep ideas fresh. As we approach the transition to the second phase of EUniWell at the end of October, it would be a good thing to change focus from the pilot phase of our local events to then looking at this idea of individual well-being and taking that as a new focus in the Student Board. I think when you are exploring individual well-being, the great thing in having an international Student Board is that you have several individuals who have different experiences and different interests. Therefore, they all have different perspectives on what their individual well-being looks like and using that diversity within the Student Board is a great way to start facilitating this exploration.
That sounds very exciting! I'm now already at the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you would like to share as part of this interview?
I would like to tell people to get involved! If you see this, then look out for more EUniWell opportunities because they're always greatly beneficial, especially from the networking and interconnecting perspective. It’s amazing to be able to work with and build connections with people across Europe. Especially in the Student Board, we've met with our current members quite a few times now in person. This has been great because you come away from it feeling like you're not just dealing with strangers online, but dealing with friends that you have spread over a wide area, and that’s a great thing to have. And if you just have a personal interest in well-being on any level, then obviously this is a great way to make actual change!
Lovely. Thank you for your time, Liam!
If you are a student at one of the EUniWell universities and interested in participating in the EUniWell Student Board, please do not hesitate to reach out to Chief Student Officer Liam Walsh: cso[at]euniwell.eu.
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