What Lies Beneath… the Academic Red Gown?

James Heaney on what student ambassadors really get up to.

No, despite the fact that Valentine’s Day has just passed, this isn’t an exposé on the secret love lives of student ambassadors (Market Street is hardly ‘Notting Hill’ after all) so if you were hoping for a steaming vat of romantic gown-clad gossip then by all means look elsewhere. However, if, like me, you have ever been guilty of thinking that only keen-beans don the red gown simply to babysit potential students and their over eager parents on visiting day walking tours, then you are gravely mistaken. Hold your head in shame…

Cast your mind back – you will probably remember your own informal welcome talk in the quad. Whilst stood in a huddle with other prospective students, you were undoubtedly informed of the ‘tradition’ of wearing the gown off one shoulder or else having it drag on the floor in what struck me as a frankly unhygienic demonstration of final year stupidity. Yet whilst those same garments remain a permanent fixture on the visiting day scene, a whole range of new clothing items, including anoraks and the far more informal red hooded jumper, are now acceptable attire. Not only does this help give the impression that we in St Andrews aren’t stuck in a fashion time warp/horror film, it also has the real added bonus of not excluding those students who used to dream of joining the ambassadors’ ranks, but were put off by the cost of a gown… or its matted wooly appearance.

No gowns were harmed in the taking of this picture

Admittedly, ‘Town and Hoody’ doesn’t have the same appealing rhyme of ‘Town and Gown’ but this is a small sacrifice. The change in dress code means that there are no barriers that could exclude or discourage new members from joining a team that, by its very nature, does everything it can to make our university a more inclusive one. Without their help, none of the 600th anniversary events or graduation ceremonies would be possible and schemes such as the ‘Open Minds’ programme (a brilliant initiative that allows members of the local community to sample academic teaching alongside students for a week) would not be viable without the supervision of ambassadors acting as chaperones to members of the public. Do you remember the Royal Wedding breakfast? Well, if you got your hands on a ticket then you’d have seen ambassadors dressed in red, dashing about and working tirelessly to make sure you had a good time.

However, the work of the student ambassador goes way beyond chaperoning. The Ambassadors’ Scholarship is a recent addition to their list of endeavors and they are currently trying to earn as much as possible to add to the fund. Ambassadors even work for ‘free’ on one visiting day of the year and donate the equivalent wage to the Scholarship. The proceeds of their ongoing fundraising efforts will result in one lucky student being selected to receive a monetary award (the sum raised over the course of the year), which will ease the financial pressures of university for them. In addition to this, the deserving candidate will also be offered a part-time ambassador role to help them into employment and a no-longer mandatory, but equally desirable, academic gown of their own; donated by The Scarlet Gown Society to wear as part of their duties.

Another ambassador-supported access scheme is a summer school operated in partnership with The Sutton Trust. St Andrews is one of the few universities in the UK (along with six other prestigious research-intensive institutions: Imperial College, UCL, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham and Nottingham) to offer such an opportunity. Through the scheme, the University of St Andrews provides 100 Higher and 30 AS level students in the UK the opportunity to get a taste of Higher Education, on a fully funded place. Students who can benefit are those that have obtained five A/A* grades at GCSE or equivalent and are from a non-traditional university background. This could be due to a number of factors including financial limitations, attendance at a school with lower than average grade attainment per pupil or a previous history of non-university attendance within their family or local community.

This year’s session runs from 1st – 6th July and attendees will be given the opportunity to sample lectures and tutorials from two academic subjects across a wide range of Schools including English, Geography and Geoscience, Computer Science, Biology and Classics. Again, this would not be possible without those hardy ambassadors, who are assigned smaller (and altogether more manageable) groups of students to care for during the week. Under the watchful eye of an ambassador, participants will also have the chance to live in halls and basically experience the life of an average first year student – minus the vast quantities of alcohol and Bop torture. More information is available from the widening participation staff: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/admissions/ug/Access and www.suttontrust.com.

Importantly, the scheme is a resounding success. It is certainly no mere PR stunt full of empty promises; a significant number of students from the summer school have successfully made the transition from compulsory education to being a St Andrews student. During the academic year 2010/11, Amelia Bunce – herself a previous summer school student – held the ‘Principal Ambassador’ position. Furthermore, statistical evidence proves that students following her past example have a 50% better chance of getting onto a degree course at St Andrews, which shows that the time and money invested really does have the desired result of inspiring talented young people to pursue learning at this competitive institution.

Ambassadors with 'Space School' students

Similarly, ‘Space School’ – which even reserves places for two children from the travelling community – is another widening participation project that collaborates with the ambassador team. Each of the Fife-based primary schools involved select two Primary Six pupils to participate in the programme, which teaches different sciences with a focus on a ‘Space’ theme. Taught over six days during a period running from February to June, culminating in a three-day summer school, it also provides the chance for children to work with NASA scientists and astronauts. As opportunities go, it really is out of this world. (Yes, that was a purposefully bad joke!)

Ambassadors with Amber Gell (Rocket Scientist) and Mike Baker (Astronaut)

If you were guilty, at the beginning of this article, of thinking that the red gown is the mark of a University of St Andrews keen-bean… well, perhaps you were right. But that red gown (or anorak, or hooded jumper) stands for so much more than a walking tour guide – it’s a symbol of someone who has pride in their university, our university (I’m welling up here). They are genuine pinnacles of inclusivity. They interact with both potential and existing students. They represent the university among the St Andrews community and the wider world. Truly, they are an inspiring bunch of hard-working people and often go without sufficient praise, so next time you see one, give them a smile.

This article covers only a small selection of the ambassadors’ activities so if you’d like to find out more or perhaps get involved, have a look at their website (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/students/involve/ambassadors/) for further information. Why not apply? Spread the love.

 

James Heaney

Images – University of St Andrews

 

 

My special thanks go to Mike Johnson (Director of Scottish/EU admissions and Access), whose welcome speech I still remember from my own St Andrews visiting day (I even wrote ‘Mike Johnson is a legend’ on the back of my feedback form!) and the hard-working duo of Linda Gibson and Pamela Forbes (Vice Principal Ambassadors for Widening Participation). Thanks to both of you for your informative help and co-operation.

One Comment

  1. James this is fantastic – how have I not read this before now!