As many students begin to think about their careers and graduating this summer, we wanted to share a case study of our flagship skilled placement programme, the Social Innovation Programme. This is a three part series, with this blog from University of Cambridge and Cambridge Hub student Lucy Bayliss, sharing a student perspective of taking part in the programme, including the expected and unexpected benefits of the programme as well as the impact on their belonging in Cambridge.
Previous blogs in this series include our first blog which shares more about the programme’s beginnings, its impact on universities and the students it supports, and our second blog which covers the programme’s impact on the community partners we work with at our Hubs and the corporate partners who provide mentors as part of the programme.
If you want to see more about the programme itself and how it works, we would recommend reading the first blog in the series here.
Tea time anyone?
I took part in the Social Innovation Programme (SIP) back in 2020, during the first term of my second year at university. I saw a post on the Student Hubs and Cambridge Hub Facebook page just after arriving back in Cambridge and I applied for the programme the same week. I was then invited to a short assessment session online for potential participants in the second week of term, which was also a good opportunity to learn more about the details of the programme and ask any questions I had, before starting the project in mid-October. I ended up in a team of six students working in partnership with the Cherry Hinton Community Benefit Society, an organisation in Cambridge that were looking to add an extension to the Cherry Hinton public library in order to open a community hub and café for local residents. Our job was to conduct research into the demographics of the Cherry Hinton area to give the society a better idea of their future clientele, as well as looking into existing successful community cafés around the country and interviewing the people running them to come up with recommendations for an effective social business model for the future Cherry Hinton community hub.
What it says on the tin and more
I have always enjoyed being an active member of my local community and, after being away from Cambridge for so long due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I loved the idea of being able to work closely with a local charity or social enterprise and, by doing so, get to know the city better.
However, like many of my fellow participants, I remember taking time to consider whether I wanted to sign up for this specific programme before sending in my application because I was concerned that taking on an extra 4-5 hours of work a week, (on top of the 40 hours that I was already putting in for my degree) would leave me feeling drained and take up free time that I could otherwise be using to take a break from my desk. In the end though, I decided it was worth a shot and I couldn’t be happier that I took that chance.
I found participating in SIP hugely beneficial. Of course, there were all of the usual positives that come from trying something new and volunteering in the community. I was able to get to know other students outside of my course; learn new skills from the training sessions and develop them through my project work; gain insight and experience in the field of consultancy; and enjoy the sense of achievement that came with being able to hand in a finished project report filled with plenty of detail and lots of recommendations to my partner organisation at the end of the six weeks. Yet when reflecting on my participation in SIP at the end of the programme, I was surprised to realise that, on top of all of these expected benefits, there had been many additional positives from taking part in the programme that I hadn’t foreseen at the time of applying.
Breaking out of the bubble
I don’t think students at the University of Cambridge are alone in talking about living inside a ‘university bubble’. Between lectures, supervisions, student societies and the fact that we live in university accommodation for our entire undergraduate degree, it’s easy to see why many feel that during term time we only seem to exist within the realms of university life, losing track of the outside world and of what is going in the lives of the permanent residents of the city – the classic ‘town and gown’ divide*.
Taking part in SIP was a great way of bridging this divide and breaking out of the bubble, meeting new people and learning more about the local community. I even got to discover and explore beautiful new parts of Cambridge as I rode my bike down to Cherry Hinton to visit the area and see the library where the community benefit society is planning to build its community hub. Being able to get to know, and to contribute to, the real Cambridge was a lovely experience and one which gave me a much greater sense of community and belonging to the city. At a time when a national lock-down meant that I was working in my room the majority of the time, it was great to have this sense of connection with the life of the city around me. I am a history and modern languages student, which means that I am currently away on my year abroad, but I can’t wait to return to Cambridge for my final year so that I can go and visit the new Cherry Hinton community hub and have a drink at the café, which will hopefully be up and running before I graduate.
The thing that surprised me most about participating in SIP, however, was the extent to which the programme also had a positive impact on my degree work. As already mentioned, before signing up to the programme, I had been worried about taking on an extra desk-based project in term time on top of my degree work. But half way through the six-week programme, as I was sat in my room one Sunday morning preparing for an online interview with the manager of an existing community café the next day, I suddenly realised that, rather than leaving me feeling drained, my work for the Cherry Hinton community hub was having quite the opposite effect.
As a Humanities student, much of my time is spent reading primary and secondary literature and writing essays. Having tasks for my SIP project to complete alongside my studies gave me a chance to change up my day with different activities and types of work to complete. The training sessions for SIP are usually at a fixed time each week, but the rest of the project is very flexible in terms of timing and I was able to fit it into my day around my other work.
Taking a break from my supervision essays and reading to work on a more tangible project was a great way for me to divide up my day and to stay energised and motivated.
Furthermore, whilst I love my course, there are times when I feel that the things we are studying can become a little too caught up in the abstract, distant and theoretical, and it can be hard to maintain focus and motivation, especially towards the end of term. In a completely unexpected way, I found that participating in the SIP project helped me to stay on track with my degree work as well.
I really believed in the project that I was working on. As someone who has often spoken about the need for more local social facilities in their community, I loved the idea of helping to create a community hub in Cherry Hinton as a central meeting point to help create stronger links between the residents of the area. Through meetings with the members of the Cherry Hinton Community Benefit Society, and the interviews that I was carrying out with the people responsible for the successful running of other community cafés around the country, I was getting to find out more about amazing social initiatives throughout the UK and the inspiring people that make them work.
Although I know that young people are warned against using such a word, I was passionate about the project and the energy and enthusiasm that I had for my SIP work was carrying over into my degree as well.
So even after spending a couple hours on a Sunday morning working on the project instead of relaxing, I had plenty of energy and time to head out for the afternoon to play a mixed netball game and then take a walk along the river, and still feel ready to start a new week the next morning.
The only advice that I can therefore offer for anyone still hesitating over whether to apply for the Social Innovation Programme, or not, is to go for it – you’ll be surprised at just how rewarding it can be!
*’Town and gown’ is an expression used in several university cities to describe the two distinct communities living there. ‘Town’ refers to the permanent population of the city and ‘gown’ is the phrase used for those living and working there for academic purposes. It is often the case that the two communities stay rather separate from one another.
Thanks to Lucy for sharing her perspective on experiencing the Social Innovation Programme, and for being the first in our series of paid blog writers at Student Hubs!
To learn more about the Social Innovation Programme, read the first blog in our series highlighting its benefits towards student development, or the second blog in the series which shares about the programmes’ impact on community partners (like Cherry Hinton Community Benefit Society) and on the corporate partners who also support our work. You can also read about our other skilled placement opportunities, Climate Action Bristol and Engage for Change.
If you’re a student and would be keen to write a blog for our website, and get paid £40 to be a blog writer with us, you can see more information at our paid blog launch piece here.
If you would like more information about bringing the Social Innovation Programme or Student Hubs’ experience to your university, you can get in touch with Partnerships and Development Director, Fiona Walsh, at firstname.lastname@example.org.