Throwing isolation to the wind: An Interview with Matt Fordham
Exeposé talks to Windriders Vice President and Welfare Officer, Matt Fordham about isolation, mental health and responsibilities of committee.
It has been a year unlike any other, and university students have been presented with numerous challenges, all while attempting to stay calm and mentally energised. It comes as no surprise that society and club committees have felt an undoubtable pressure to ensure that all members are receiving an enriching experience, despite the global pandemic.
É: How are you finding this year different to your first year and what changes do you feel you’ve had to implement as a result of Coronavirus?
That’s two big questions. A big difference I think is the purpose of the degree obviously. In first year, it doesn’t count towards my final mark, whereas this year there’s a little bit more of a purpose to the grades I receive and I got to actually choose (the optional modules) to study. With Corona this year, living in a house is so much better because you’re communally living. Last year, it was a bit like an old people’s home in the sense that everyone has their own room and then it’s only if someone is coincidentally in the kitchen at the same time that you actually see anyone. It’s much easier to be isolated, sat in your room, with your own space. It’s not a bedroom in the same way that it would be at home, it’s your everything place. Whereas in a house, you’ve got a living room and a kitchen and stuff that’s separate from the bedrooms.
É: Were you expecting second year to be so different?
I think it’s one of those things— I don’t think I’ve met someone who’s preconceptions of university and the reality that they face actually line up. So it doesn’t matter what I thought I was going into, because it was always going to be different. Seeing other people’s lives at uni (during my gap year), you can kind of get an expectation but when it’s your everyday, and it’s just you and your room, it’s dark and cold and just brick, you realise that it’s difficult. In terms of Corona, I much prefer having online seminars and lectures. It means that you’re able to actually structure your week around university which I think is much more important in terms of getting your head together rather than just feeling lost.
I don’t think I’ve met someone who’s preconceptions of university and the reality that they face actually line upMatt Fordham
É: How important do you think structure is in University life?
Absolutely massive. If someone was to say, “I go out four nights a week”, from a school perspective that sounds massive. But when that is your social life, a few hours four nights a week is not a lot when you compare it to the hours you spend at school. If you don’t have any structure, there is no reason not to get up at midday and not go to bed until two or three o’clock in the morning because you can do it. And it’s not healthy, but no one is stopping you from doing it, so why wouldn’t you?
É: Do you feel that isolation and loneliness is something to be worried about this year?
For me as an individual, no, not really. Just because I’m in a happy house, I’ve got the Windriders and being on committee has meant that I’ve got much more purpose outside of the academic side of uni. However, in terms of the wider University perspective, loneliness is definitely something to be worried about this year. Hence why I got involved in setting up Chit Chat UK (a phone conversation platform) because I thought from the first lockdown that this was going to be a massive issue. That’s absolutely the case for Fresher’s this year which is why I think it’s really important to push that. The welfare officer training has kind of considered that and highlighted that it’s more an issue than ever before. Halls of residence can feel a bit like solitary confinement… Once your room door shuts, that’s you in for the night, so hearing footsteps on the stairs was annoying rather than pleasant because of the isolation. This year, I hear someone coming up the stairs and it’s like “oh, someone is home”.
É: You have been voted into the welfare officer position as well as Vice President in Windriders, did you have that in mind when you received your training?
We had a training session and I think it’s important, especially for welfare officers to set boundaries. Yes, they are there and they are visible but they need to be in a position to be able to put a welfare hat on and speak to members of their societies and clubs from a welfare position not just a personal position. So I asked if we could get a separate email for welfare and that’s being set up now. That’s something that I put forward so that there is a direct link of communication that is, not necessarily nameless, but people don’t feel like they’re interacting with me as Matt, but me as the welfare officer which can actually make a big difference in people when opening up.
É: What kind of new ideas and structures have been put into place to reduce loneliness?
Families were something I wanted to do since last year. Coincidentally, Ben (AU President) had spoken about mentors during our welfare training and I’d said to the Windriders President, Saff, that I wanted to set up families with people from committee or senior members of the club, who would act as mentors for younger or newer members and are people they can talk to or ask advice. Having these little families of six people, with old Boris’ Covid restrictions, helps to integrate the years. This integration is rarely formalised and it can be intimidating for Fresher’s to spend time with second and third years who are returning to the society. So to have these families where Freshers feel like they can talk to an older year openly that is really important.
I wanted to set up families with people from committee or senior members of the club, who would act as mentorsMatt Fordham
É: Such a good idea! Do you feel that the University itself are doing or have done enough for students, freshers and returners, to make them feel happy?
I think it’s a difficult one because the University can pump so much money and time into welfare, but if the individuals don’t feel like they benefit from accessing those services then it could feel like a waste of time. There have been a few people I’ve spoken to who’ve felt that, through no fault of welfare or wellbeing staff, the system is overloaded. If someone is in a crisis and it’s taking a while to get a response to that person, it may feel to them that the moment has passed for the most valuable support to be given. The support they end up receiving from wellbeing may not be in direct response to the crisis they originally contacted for. It’s not counterproductive by any means because it can be the crucial step to get the help needed, but it could potentially make them feel like it didn’t produce the results they wanted at the time.
It’s difficult because the Uni is a business with a responsibility to look after the staff and the students so they put on all of these things so it looks like there’s a lot of support there but it’s more about managing that support effectively. Something that we discussed in the welfare training, is the channel system whereby in addition to the wellbeing and welfare services, the situation gets fed through us and we can sign post them to the right place or resources which will help alleviate the stress on wellbeing a bit. Sometimes even the chaplaincy can be there for a chat, it doesn’t necessarily have to be religious but they are there. Not every time someone rings into wellbeing does it need to be a mental health issue, it can just be a case of them feeling isolated. It’s not a waste of resources but it’s about using those resources more efficiently elsewhere.
É: Obviously this entire month is Movember, what have Wind Riders been doing to raise awareness and support?
A lot of ideas got thrown around. A lot got cancelled because of lockdown. One we can still do, because we’re allowed to exercise is the Move for Movember campaign. Our summer holiday to Tarifa got cancelled, so we’re doing a collective effort to take us to Tarifa which I think is 1,021 miles. So through lockdown, whether it be cycling, running, kitesurfing, whatever, just getting us there and raising money and awareness that way.