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A quick call about student well-being

Supporting our students’ well-being is a priority for the University. Last week was our Student Well-Being Week, and throughout the year our students have access to mental health support such as buddy programmes, student support groups and study skills workshops. Each faculty is to have its own well-being officer. Alexandra Blank is one of them. She switched this month from study coach to well-being officer at the Faculty of Science (FWN). ‘I hope to bring fun and humanity to the topic.’

Hi Alexandra. Why did you switch from study adviser to well-being officer?

As a study adviser I already had a slightly different role: in recent years I have been coaching master’s students and PhD candidates at the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS @ FWN). I worked a lot with study advisers who brought the students into contact with me. I recently shared my experiences at the EUniWell Student Well-Being Symposium. I’ve mentored and coached people from a young age already, in sport, as a homework tutor and later as a mentor. I really enjoy helping people – young adults in particular – see what they have in them, how they can develop. That’s what I did at LIACS too. I did have a few doubts: I’m a less talk more action kind of person. For me a hands-on approach to well-being and people’s development is important. I was worried I’d lose the direct contact with students, but I also saw great opportunities.

So you took the plunge. What opportunities do you see?

In the role of well-being officer, I have a lot of freedom to start new initiatives. Until now, I’ve focused on individuals and small groups, but soon I’ll be reaching more students, and still with concrete things. We are also choosing a wider approach to well-being. Now it’s often, “This student’s not doing well. We have to help.” The results of the National Student Survey show that a large group is doing well. They don’t need help right away, but we can prepare them to deal with setbacks. It’s important to learn to be resilient, to be strong. By discovering – from positive psychology – what you’re good at and developing this, for instance. I sometimes hear from colleagues and students that they’re a bit tired of yet another workshop on what stress does to your body. They want to learn something new and to approach the topic from the perspective of strengths. You can do this in a playful way too. I’m really looking forward to working on that.

And the students you’re now coaching?

I’ll still continue in the study coach role at LIACS for some of my time, and I assume the students there will also be interested in new initiatives. They’ll make use of these; it goes hand in hand.

Last week was Student Well-Being Week. Did you contribute?

I started on 1 November and wasn’t involved in organising it. But I did attend a few talks, to keep in touch with students and see what’s being done. And I’m in Angela van der Lans’s (the well-being officer at SEA) Student Well-Being group. I did that “on the side”, but it meant I’ve already been involved for a while. I gave feedback and input. Now it really is part of my job.

How is the group changing?

We are transforming the Student Well-Being workgroup into a sounding board, so that we can still involve people who are interested. As of January we’ll be holding meetings with all the faculty well-being officers. The aim will be to share information and good practices: what’s going well at the various faculties? Is that useful to others? And also: what are the central projects and how do we ensure that these are accessible to students via the faculties? As well-being officers we want to be at the centre of things. Connecting all the different levels: from the central organisation to the faculties and institutes and vice versa. Who is doing what and how can we ensure things aren’t done twice? There are fantastic ideas within institutes and programmes that we should use. 

Could you give an example of such an idea?

The mentoring/tutoring that already exists in some degree programmes is a good example. During the pandemic we’ve seen that it works really well. Now it’s being coordinated centrally so that it can be introduced at all faculties and institutes. An idea from the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) has also been very well received by students: a thesis-failure event. Students got together, had a drink and told one another all that went wrong during their studies. A spin-off of the “fuckup nights” actually, which focus on entrepreneurs. Sharing experiences, mistakes made and lessons learnt. The good thing about this approach is that you feel human again. You can make mistakes and still achieve your goal. A very human approach to a very big topic for students. It has great potential. There was also such a meeting at the previous well-being week. Students talked about their failures, for instance about how the pressure to succeed almost broke them. This attracted a lot of students. It touched and inspired them.’

You’ve only just started in this role. What do you hope to look back on in a year’s time? 

I hope that the topic will be looked at from a wider perspective and that new components have been added, such as developing resilience and a positive psychology about. For me well-being is about humanity and fun. I love to laugh, and hope I can use humour and laughter to make the topic a bit lighter. This can help at even the darkest moments. But also that we can see each other as real people, make real contact. And yes, that starts with something as simple as a cup of coffee with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. 

A call about

There is a lot happening within Leiden University. The websites are filled with news on a daily basis. In the section 'A call about' we ask one of our employees to tell us more about a relevant and topical subject within the university. The answers give you more insight into the facts, but above all give you more personal background information. What was fun or frustrating? What was remarkable? What was good and what was bad? You can read all about it in 'A call about'.

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