Aston University student Joanne Eze beat off competition from across the country to win a national award for her contribution to the ‘Aimhigher Associates scheme’. The third-year Human Resource Management student has received national recognition for her work with local youngsters at the National Aimhigher Awards which took place in London last month.
Aspects spoke to Joanne to find out more about how it feels to win Aston University Mentor of the Year, Birmingham and Solihull Associate of the Year and Aimhigher UK National Associate of the Year!
Can you tell us a bit more about the Aimhigher scheme and what it involves?
Aimhigher is a national programme run throughout the country and I am one of 1,265 students who have spent the past year working as an Aimhigher Associate, mentoring local school and college students. The scheme involves creating long-term links between young people of school age and university students from a similar background – it’s part of the wider Aimhigher programme, which is aimed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Why did you decide to become a mentor?
I’ve always grabbed every opportunity to work with youth groups. This started when I was in Year 9 when I was given the opportunity to train and become a mentor at my secondary school. I was fortunate enough to have inspirational teachers whom I deem mentors, role models and influential factors in my life; therefore I wished to help others in a similar way. I never realised the multitude of outreach opportunities that Aston University provided for its students, so when I found out, I jumped at the chance to be involved!
Once you got onto the scheme, what happened next?
When I heard that Archbishop Grimshaw Secondary School (AGS) was participating in the scheme, I knew that this was the school for me. Based within an area of regeneration where the levels of student progression to higher education are very low, I wanted to go where I felt I could reinvest in my local community. My elder sister attended AGS through to college and she has now attained her Legal Practical Course Diploma (LPC). It was important to me that other students know that a person doesn’t have to be limited by stereotypes or the circumstances within which they are brought up in.
How did you approach the scheme?
I knew I had to get to know each and every student and tailor sessions to each individual. This would provide everyone with an incentive to turn up, knowing that their development programme was solely crafted for them so that they could reach their maximum potential.
How did you come up with innovative ways to help the young adults?
Initially, in the first couple of weeks of icebreakers sessions, I used interactive, computer-based tools to determine each student's learning style to understand how best to communicate effectively with each one. I used to spend weekends thinking of what I’d like if I was in their situation. Through my studies on my degree programme, I knew that creativity was a key component in engaging people with their tasks. I further found that goal setting and involving students in the process from the beginning also helped them take ownership and become drivers of the scheme too.
Tell us a bit more about the type of people you were mentoring.
I had a very mixed bunch! Some were very shy and quiet and others were very outgoing. I was so nervous at first but I tried to hide it. I was so relieved when I met them all; my learners and the faculty at the school were very friendly, which made it that much easier to fit in. My Aston University co-ordinator, Amanda Bishop, was outstanding as well. She’d built really good links with the school and organised an introductory session between the mentors, mentees and staff that enabled us all to get to know each other before we started the sessions.
Were there any particular incidents that stood out amongst others?
I think I was most proud when one of my learners, having received a C in psychology a year earlier managed to attain an A grade by the end of the year!
What do you feel you’ve taken away from the experience?
I've been able to nurture something which has been a key passion of mine for many years. I was honoured to see the students grow in confidence and learn the value of independent study, a necessary skill required to succeed in higher education. It was also fantastic to see them come together and support each other (without prompting!) in study groups and make use of their library’s resources. I honestly feel that they did more to develop me as a person. Just to witness their determination and commitment inspired me greatly.
What was your reaction to being nominated and then winning?
To this day I am still stunned. I don’t think that it has even sunk in yet! I did not expect to win anything. To win Aston University Mentor of the Year, Birmingham and Solihull Associate of the Year and now Aimhigher UK National Associate of the Year all in the last few months is just mind-boggling. I prize these as my proudest achievements to date and am so thankful to everyone involved in the scheme, especially the Outreach team at the University, without whom I could never have achieved this.
What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to go into a related field?
Initially I had hoped to continue directly down this path. However, at the Birmingham & Solihull mentoring awards, a member of the judging panel, gave me some great advice; “Anyone can be a mentor to a friend, fellow colleague or a learner in any job role.” I think this will be a core value that I shall take with me. It is something that I can utilise within my current placement based within the Learning & Development faculty at Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust. I hope to use all that I have learned throughout mentoring to successfully graduate, obtain my masters and forge my career path in HR so that I may become the most effective manager of people that I can be.
Words by Munira Jasat