When the topic of ‘visibility’ arises in outreach, it is usually to do with raising the profile of students from under-represented groups. Sometimes this manifests in a push for more diverse marketing campaigns, to represent the true (or aspirant) diversity of students at a given institution, or as an initiative within a university to recognise the presence and achievements of groups who fly under the radar.
However, when it comes to student-facing visibility, I believe it is just as important that applicants see diversity in the range of people creating, organising and delivering outreach, too. And not just from students.
As an awkward, closeted teenager from a tiny school of less than 300 students, it wasn’t until I arrived at university that I had the means to explore my own identity. Discussion of LGBTQ+ identities and experience were never part of my school life – and even today, the protracted battle over the No Outsiders campaign in 2019 highlights the culture of taboo around being LGBTQ+, and feeds into the culture of fear that sees an over 100% increase in mental health issues in young LGBTQ+ people as opposed to their straight and/or cisgender peers.
Away from the homogenous environment of a small school, it was also an opportunity to meet new people, and begin to discover that my singular role as the “weird girl” was not in fact a result personal fault – and in fact that a great many of the things that made me “weird” were in fact things I had in common with others. Hobbies. Habits. Traits. Symptoms, even – and through the support and shared experiences of new friends, answers.
University, in short, afforded me a place to question, to explore, and finally find the words and community that not only mirrored but supported my experiences. And it was after graduation, working at the same university as a staff member in widening participation, that that same supportive, inclusive team culture allowed me to be open about my sexuality, gave me the insight and support to seek out and confirm an adulthood diagnosis of ADHD – and, at the end of 2020, a university initiative around clarity and respect for gender pronouns gave me the confidence, too, to announce a change in my own pronouns to better reflect my real, authentic self.
University should be a safe, supportive and validating space for students to question and express their identity – as a matter sexuality, of gender, of neurodivergence, or race, or disability. And we, as outreach staff, have a duty to create and foster that space. Especially, I believe, for students who may also find their university experience additionally daunting because they do not see themselves reflected to an adequate degree in a Russell Group university’s reputational culture or participants.
It is not easy, after all, to step into an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, still carrying the unspoken burden of your difference.
Widening participation initiatives are already geared toward deconstructing the exclusive, private-school, mono-cultural reputation of Russell Group universities. The visibility of those who run these initiatives can be just as vital. No amount of flash marketing or catchy slogans can make up for the element that makes the real difference – the people.
No one person can solve the endemic imbalances of higher education, or of society as a whole. But, as an openly queer, neurodivergent and non-binary adult, I can inform the development of inclusive practice, and I can use my own story, my own advice, and my own profile, to show young people that there are people like them – adults like them – who found through higher education opportunities for self discovery, authenticity, community, and happiness.
I am, of course, not the only one. The stories and faces of other staff, who share cultures and experiences with the students we reach out to, can all make a difference – can all show under-represented students that they are not outliers, or tokens, or charity cases.
And, most importantly, our visibility can show them that they are not alone.
Charley Robson is the Widening Participation Co-ordinator for the College of Medicine and Health.