Reflections on my first year as a fellow

Written by Rachael O'Connor

Phase 1 of my LITE fellowship project involved recruiting students from across campus who self-identified as ‘under-represented’ to form a research team with me to co-create a staff/student reverse mentoring scheme to run in 22/23.[1] I had just over 50 applications which signalled to me that the project speaks to things our students care about. That gave me a real boost at the outset when starting out on this work – it is nothing without the buy-in from our students. With the support of Natalja Nassonova (LITE Student Research Assistant), we chatted to applicants and selected 15 students to form the ‘student consultation team’. I was extremely pleased with the breadth of diversity and intersectionality captured within this small team; a real celebration of the true student body at Leeds. However, in hindsight, the team should have had a different name as they did much more than consult – they were the heart of Phase 1; this was a co-designed project. This change of language from consultation to co-design reflects how much more I have learned about co-design throughout the process. Although I gave the student team the framework of reverse mentoring, they came up with all of the ideas and creative thoughts that will come together to form the final project. They were researchers, not only consultants – whilst a big driver for my project is breaking down barriers and hierarchies in Higher Education (HE), the labels and titles we give to our student research partners are important and should be considered closely in this type of research.

Our research journey as a team started with an online training session where we got to know one another and started to explore our senses of “under-representation”, as well as getting to grips with the concept of reverse mentoring and the project framework. The group was broken down into five sub-teams with three students in each – I tried to achieve a mix of different forms of under-representation within each sub-team, based on what the students had discussed in their applications. Students worked closely together each week in their sub-team and then had opportunities during the research period to collaborate with other sub-teams, facilitating the building of different bonds across the group and the sharing of ideas, as well as opportunities to get feedback from ‘critical friends’ who shared a common bond of under-representation.

The team had a research period of eight weeks and committed to around three hours of research each week in line with a weekly topic/theme connected to co-designing the structure of the reverse mentoring project. They received a weekly voucher to acknowledge their valuable contributions. We explored topics including how to pair staff and students for reverse mentoring, what pairs could work on together to contribute to a policy proposal on improving academic personal tutoring and how we can authentically gather feedback from participants. Typically, the sub-team developed their ideas on a topic for one week and then the following week, paired up with another sub-team to pilot and test our their ideas on one another and gather feedback. I found this to be really effective for building creativity and boldness of ideas across the whole group. I also met up with sub-teams fortnightly to discuss their ideas and ask further questions based on their PebblePad write up, as well as having whole team catch ups in the middle and at the end of the research period.

We used PebblePad as the primary space for sharing and reporting findings and ideas, as well as for weekly reflections on being part of the team. This was a great opportunity to use PebblePad in a different capacity and it showed me how powerful it can be as a sort of diary space for researchers, not only to report work but also to consider how the research process is making them feel and think. I plan to use it more in my future research with students. However, in this Phase, it may have been better to use joint sub-team workbooks in PebblePad, rather than asking each individual student to complete their own workbook every week as it was a lot of work for them to manage. So whilst the project has got off to a fantastic start thanks to the student team and all of their enthusiasm and innovation, it hasn’t all gone smoothly. As well as the burden of the weekly PebblePad reflections/reporting, there were further challenges for some students in terms of maintaining their commitment to the project as things picked up academically during the semester and, as we ran the process fully online, difficulties with time zones and connectivity as students move around the country/world. One student withdrew from the team a few weeks in and a couple of others missed some weeks. However, overall, the students really pulled together and supported one another over the 10 or so weeks we shared as a team – this commitment and hearing what they got out of it was extremely uplifting for me as the academic lead on the project. It reminded me why I put my heart and soul into this work – it’s for every individual student that this may make a positive difference to.

Once the research period concluded, the students became research participants to reflect on their experiences of being part of the team. I felt this was important because as well as what they co-designed, their feelings, experiences and learnings are just as vital a part of this project. I semi-randomly paired individuals, avoiding those who had been on a sub-team together, and they took part in a ‘mutual interview’ via Teams, inspired by the listening rooms model which I have been using in other areas of my research.[2] All students will also be invited to take part in the reverse mentoring project they co-created next year, should they wish to do so. I think taking this full circle is important so that the students can see the impact of their hard work this year.

I hope in reading this blog you might be inspired to do more co-created research with students, particularly those from historically excluded backgrounds. As one of the team put it in their reflective interview at the close of the project:

“the time on the project has made me feel incredibly empowered and I feel a massive sense of security in my underrepresentation because I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to utilise it and to put it towards something that really … the idea that it might help other students in my position … [who have] experienced any of those prejudices or hardships or barriers … is really makes me feel really good. I’m really proud of the things that we’ve done and the work that we’ve been a part of.”

Creating research spaces where we can empower historically excluded students to feel included and valued and to put their mark on work that concerns them and those who will come after them can be a hugely impactful experience for those students and, I can tell you from first-hand experience, we can learn and dismantle a hell of a lot ourselves along the way. I’ve learned so much about different forms of exclusion and lived experiences of students from backgrounds far removed from my own Northern UK working class heritage. That opportunity has made me hungry to learn more and cemented the fact for me that we can only do that where those with the lived experiences, our students, lead on this work with us. For now, I am continue to work with Sophia Lambert, a Student Research Experience Intern who also self-identifies as ‘under-represented’ to evaluate the team’s work and bring all of the fantastic ideas together to form the final project – watch this space (and please get in touch if you’d like to be involved, R.E.OConnor@leeds.ac.uk)


[1] To read more about reverse mentoring and my first pilot project, see O’Connor ‘‘It makes me feel empowered and that we can make a difference’ Reverse mentoring between international students and staff in legal education’ (2022) European Journal of Legal Education 3(1), 95-126.

[2] See Heron (2020) Friendship as method: reflections on a new approach to understanding student experiences in higher education, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44:3, 393-407, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2018.1541977 and Mottershaw, et al Listening Rooms Toolkit https://sway.office.com/uPgMLVr5OcqpLUbw (accessed 1 August 2022).