Discussing the Shadowing Scheme and online access with the SU Access Officer

Zaynab talks to The Tab about the successes and challenges of organising an online access programme

Every year in Lent Term, the Cambridge SU organises and runs a shadowing scheme for Year 12s and other prospective students, pairing them with a Cambridge University student mentor. I sat down with this year’s SU Access, Education and Participation Officer (UG) – and future Undergraduate President – Zaynab Ahmed, who has been responsible for running and overseeing this year’s scheme.

With the scheme moved online for a second year, I was keen to ask Zaynab about the unique challenges of showcasing Cambridge life within the confines of a computer screen, the highs and lows of organising an initiative on this scale, and her hopes for the future of access events at the university.

The 2022 Shadowing Scheme

I began by asking about the scheme itself, which Zaynab describes as “one of the UK’s biggest student-led access residentials” which has run yearly “since about 2000”. Its purpose is “to introduce students, particularly those from widening participation backgrounds, to life at university and particularly Cambridge.

“It’s really humanising the Cambridge experience and making it something really tangible, and not scary at all – it’s a genuine possibility that some of these Shadows might go on to.”

She explains that the year 12 students, informally known on the scheme as ‘Shadows’, are chosen by a number of widening participation criteria, including students on free school meals, those at state comprehensive schools, or those who are the first in their family to attend university. The scheme is in high demand, normally attracting “somewhere between 1000 and 2000” applicants per year, whilst only accepting “between 100 and 300 students”.

Events and talks are put on by current Cambridge students, who are given “the creativity and flexibility to run a session however they want”. Zaynab adds that “what is amazing about the shadowing scheme is that it is a student-led access initiative, and that is something that the university just can’t do.”

Zaynab described the response from current Cambridge students as “heartwarming”, with 400 students signing up for 100 mentor places on this year’s scheme. She added, “People do care about access work, and it’s really cool to see students just understand how important it is.”

Moving the Shadowing Scheme online

After last year’s scheme took place entirely online for the first time, this year’s Scheme was originally intended to return to an in-person residential. Then Omicron struck, and the decision was taken to run an online scheme for a second year. Zaynab told me that “obviously we’d been keeping an eye on the Covid situation, we knew that it wasn’t guaranteed that we would be able to run it in person.

“We were really hoping to but then I think we had to make the decision in about mid-December”, when the government announced the move to Plan B. She stands by the decision, saying “it was gutting because it would have been nice to see all those faces in person, but it was absolutely right decision to make”, particularly for the “mental and physical health” of all participants.

With this decision taken, the Scheme could no longer continue with the usual in-person activities, in which the year 12 shadows travel to Cambridge to attend the lectures and supervisions of their mentors. Zaynab explained that “the kinds of activities that we planned were slightly different and had to be tweaked”, involving “a big call out for student activity”, particularly encouraging societies to run online sessions for the Shadows.

In spite of the shift, Zaynab remained positive about the activities available to Shadows during the scheme. College access officers ran sessions on college life, whilst societies and other students ran subject-focused events and other extra-curricular activities. Online sessions allowed for more tailored experience than the usual scheme, where shadows usually attend the actual lectures of their mentors. Instead, volunteer Cambridge students were “able to teach something at the appropriate level that was still challenging” and introduce the Year 12 students to new subjects offered at Cambridge.

Herself inspired by the sessions, Zaynab commented, “If I’m sitting here inspired by my peers, there’s no knowing how inspired a prospective student can be.”

Benefits of an online Shadowing Scheme

Alongside more tailored access sessions, I asked Zaynab whether the online initiatives can improve accessibility. She told me “This is an access scheme and so you want it to be as accessible as possible, and I think moving things online does give you a lot of benefit in that.”

One of the major benefits is the ability for prospective students from across the country to participate in the Scheme without the lengthy time or costs of travelling to Cambridge. Zaynab points out that this allows the scheme to have a greater reach, since the concerns over travel are “completely mitigated”.

Zaynab added, “The distance is reduced, so students don’t have to worry about making really difficult travel arrangements, or having to pay and wait for us to subsidise that.

“Being able to travel from very far across the country to Cambridge is a privilege that a lot of people don’t have, and so being able to offer them online stuff is really, really important.”

Whilst the in-person scheme occurred as a “short, intense weekend”, moving the scheme online has also allowed the scheme to run for longer, “Which gives shadows time to build relationships and get to do different things across the course of the scheme.”

She also points out that online access can “really good at tailoring for different disabilities”, since participants can then choose “to be camera-on, camera-off, and we’re able to do things like closed captioning, we’re able to record sessions, and that’s another thing that hadn’t been done in the past with the in person scheme.”

Limitations of an online shadowing scheme

Admittedly, moving the Scheme online has also had its limits. Mentors are encouraged to stay in contact with mentees after the scheme to give advice on personal statements and university applications, though Zaynab admits that “when you don’t have that time to face to face in person connection it can be really hard to kind of start that online connection afterwards” – though adds that this year’s mentors “absolutely rose to the challenge”.

Of course, one of the major limitations of online access has been that prospective students cannot experience Cambridge in-person. Zaynab told me that whilst mentors and session leaders “did such a good job at illustrating Cambridge culture” through online college tours and Geoguessr games, “there’s something about the magic of being in Cambridge” that is hard to illustrate online.

She added, “I hope that in-person access does continue to some extent so people continue to feel that magic.”

Given both the advantages and disadvantages of an online scheme, I was keen to ask Zaynab about the future of the Shadowing Scheme. Whilst she told me that this will be the future team’s decision, she speculates “maybe it’s a case that Cambridge SU takes the best bits of the online and in-person scheme and figures out what the shadowing scheme looks like moving forward incorporating both of those elements.”

Feature image credits: Tom Booth

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