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Maintaining our commitment to widening participation in spite of COVID-19


St Catharine’s is committed to encouraging applications from students with academic potential from all backgrounds. At the start of 2020, everyone in College had been looking forward to a busy calendar of activities designed to raise aspirations and widen participation in higher education, carefully organised by Kathryn Singleton, our Schools Liaison Officer. Kathryn had been due to travel with members of College on a roadshow around different schools to talk about life at Catz, and there would have been a whole host of ways for prospective students to experience life at Catz in person: visit days (see page 10 of The Wheel), an access day for BME young people, subject masterclasses, residential opportunities and open days.

Sadly, as the spread of COVID-19 accelerated around the world, it wasn’t long before public health guidance in the UK restricted large gatherings, closed schools and prohibited non-essential travel. The safety and wellbeing of participants and the College community was paramount so it was necessary to cancel activities, sometimes at short notice.

As a result, since early March, Kathryn and a wider network of students, Fellows and staff have been working intensively to deliver the College’s activities in new ways. Read on to find out what has been achieved thanks to their unwavering commitment and determination.

Supporting schools

With at least one Schools Liaison Officer or equivalent role at every Cambridge college, Kathryn acted quickly in March to bring together her counterparts from across the University:

“I was able to arrange an online meeting with around 20 representatives from the different colleges, as I knew we would all be in the same boat: all in-person activities had been cancelled and online resources for schools were somewhat limited. We were able to put in place a plan for each of us to record presentations to fill any gaps and cover the wide range of age groups and topics that we usually cater for,” she explains.

Once a consolidated library of video presentations was ready to go, these were shared with teachers as an immediate substitute for the talks and in-person support that would have ordinarily been available to schools. One of the new videos created by Kathryn for schools has already been watched over 2,000 times. Ultimately, this helpful and joined-up approach supported teachers across the country at a time when they were experiencing huge disruption.

Improving relationships with schools and prospective students

The College also started to offer to schools the opportunity for an online webinar session that could accompany a pre-recorded video presentation, in order to engage students about what they’d just watched and answer any queries they might have. This approach was wisely piloted with a small group of schools in North Yorkshire as a replacement for the roadshow of in-person visits that Kathryn and our students had been forced to cancel.

This initial series of eight webinars received great feedback – “Just to say thank you for organising and hosting the webinar. It was brilliant, informative, friendly and encouraging. Perfect!” – and inspired Kathryn to embark on a more ambitious programme of activities. The pilot also demonstrated significant benefits: online delivery reduced costs and travel time, increased the number of participants who could get involved, and enabled the College to host a single session for multiple groups regardless of their location.

Kathryn comments, “The College was quick to built on the success of the virtual roadshow for the original group of eight schools. Our interactive online approach has enabled us to reach out to all of our other link schools and to partners like the Access Project, the Seren Network and the Elephant Group. Sharing our activities on social media has prompted schools to get in touch who hadn’t been involved with Catz before now, helping us to build new relationships that will continue to benefit students in years to come.”

Submitting questions anonymously gave students the option to ask questions that they had in the past been too embarrassed to ask aloud. As part of this, there has also been an uptick in questions about mental health provision and pastoral care in College since the outbreak of COVID-19. Typical questions during recent Q&A sessions have included: “Will I fit in?”, “How do you cope with academic pressures?”, “What happens in an interview?”, “How diverse is Cambridge?” and “What support is there for mental health?”.

“The anonymous Q&A function has helped us to nurture more open exchanges with prospective students about welfare issues. I collaborated with Mary Simuyandi, Welfare Officer, on a webinar dedicated to the subject of mental wellbeing, in order to share strategies for looking after mental health and the welfare support systems in place at Catz and Cambridge. Feedback surveys before and after the session showed that students’ opinions about Cambridge and looking after their mental wellbeing had noticeably improved,” notes Kathryn.

Figure: Feedback analysis from a recent webinar on welfare provision

Mary’s next webinar for prospective students about student welfare and wellbeing provision at St Catharine’s is being held on 6 July. She’ll be joined by Anousha and Alex, the JCR Welfare Officers, and Dr David Bainbridge (Disabilities Tutor and Childcare Tutor) to talk about all aspects of student wellbeing in College. Register your place.

Expanding the reach of our activities

The College’s transition to online activities has reached more students than ever before: in total, 1,100 attendees have participated in 30 sessions since March. To take one example, 84 students participated in the online version of our MML and English residential, as opposed to the original group of 25 who the College would have been able to support in person.

Current students at Catz would agree that Open Days are an important part of the application process, with opportunities to meet undergraduates and Fellows helps them picture themselves at Catz. The College would expect up to 140 students on average to travel to Cambridge for an in-person College Open Day or other Taster Day, but our online sessions are now accessible for a much larger pool of potential applicants. Register for College Q&A sessions held as part of Cambridge Open Days on 2 and 3 July 2020.

Delving deeper with our online sessions

Feedback from both in-person and online activities indicates that pairing prospective students with someone studying their subject can be enormously valuable. For example, a recent online MML and English event included Q&A sessions that proved very popular because they brought together undergraduates and prospective students according to degree subject. In response, the College will host for the first time 16 subject-specific Q&A sessions during 6–10 July.

As Dr David Bainbridge and Dr Ivan Scales, Undergraduate Admissions Tutors, explain: “We're excited to offer a unique opportunity for prospective students to meet online with us, Directors of Studies, interviewers and current students in their subject. The enthusiasm and commitment across the Catz community means we are able to run Q&A sessions for every single one of the subjects that we offer – thank you in advance to everyone for your support.”

With Kathryn overseeing the full programme, there will be over 50 Catz students and 24 of our Fellows on hand to share their experiences and insights. The schedule includes the session on 6 July about welfare (mentioned above), which will also cover the support available for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. In addition, there is a session for anyone interested in taking part in music opportunities at Catz and Cambridge (regardless of whether they intend to study the Music course).

Register for the subject-specific Q&A sessions.

Supporting BME students

Among the events cancelled back in March was an access day jointly organised with Queens’ College that was focused on Year 12 (or equivalent) students at UK state schools who identify as BME. Our shared vision for the event was not abandoned, with Kathryn taking a leading role to ensure plans were soon in place for a virtual BME access day – also in collaboration with Queens’. 94 attendees participated across three online Q&A sessions covering sciences, arts and humanities, and life at Cambridge, respectively.

As Danielle Wright and Josie Archer, the current Catz JCR BME Officers, described after the sessions: “We worked with the previous BME Officers at Catz and Queens’, who had planned for this event to take place in Cambridge at the end of Lent Term. The replacement online sessions were student-led, and gave prospective BME students the chance to pose questions to other BME students, as well as to Kathryn and the Catz Admissions Tutors. We received some really good questions, and it was clear that having the chance to ask about cultural societies and provisions for different cultural needs made the day a valuable experience for the many students who attended. We were glad these informal sessions enabled prospective students to talk to Cambridge students from similar backgrounds, demonstrating that anyone can apply to Cambridge and feel comfortable studying here. It was great to have 14 students (plus further staff and Fellows) from the two Colleges working together on the access day, and it is something that we think would be useful in the future.”

Pictured: Josie Archer (left) and Danielle Wright (right), Catz JCR BME officers (Photo by Binky Nixon)

Continuing to encourage applications from talented young people

At the start of the pandemic, the potential for disruption to the College’s activities was a real concern: we were acutely aware of the potential damage to relationships that had been built up over many months with schools, teachers and their students, which could ultimately undermine students’ ambitions and jeopardise future applications to Catz. Instead, the College has risen to the challenge in new, creative ways that has expanded the breadth and depth of our relationships.

“While there continues to be uncertainty about the continued spread of COVID-19, we can be certain of one thing: St Catharine’s commitment to widening participation will continue unabated thanks to Kathryn Singleton and our wider community of students, staff and Fellows who have come together in support of our new online programme of activities,” concludes Dr Holly Canuto, Senior Tutor.

Find out more about applying to St Catharine's as an undergraduate.