Supporting student wellbeing and increasing belonging and community was already a focus at LSHTM when COVID-19 hit. Counselling services had seen demand increase, and programme directors were keen to alleviate student anxiety and stress. COVID-19 exacerbated this. Meeting wholly online, between March and September 2020, a small and diverse group of staff and alumni developed a pilot intervention whereby new incoming students were placed in five-person informal support groups, which were named ‘Pentacells’.
In summer 2020, we recruited and briefed approximately 45 alumni. We allocated one each to the Pentacells to arrange, host and facilitate weekly online meetings. Groups worked through interactive exercises chosen to foster belonging, sharing of valued experiences, and information exchange. Approximately 225 students participated, and feedback from students and alumni was very positive. When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how much their Pentacell had enhanced their wellbeing, 25% of students rated it 10 (mean score 7.2).
Comments from students involved in the pilot include:
“Creating the pentacell of students as little friend groups have been a game-changer during COVID. It gave me social support and friendship that I wouldn’t have had otherwise; this was hands-down the BEST thing that LSHTM has done to support my student experience.”
“The Pentacells that were set up for my programme have been incredible, and I would not have made it through this year without them.”
“I really appreciated the Pentacells this year. It was a great surprise as something I was not expecting to have. It really helped me feel connected to my peers and have a support system I could turn to if I needed it. I am thrilled to see that this is being continued into future years!”
The class of 2021-22
Following the success of the 2020-21 pilot, we made Pentacells available to all teaching and learning programmes for the class of 2021-22, and it was implemented in 11 MSc programmes. Over 100 alumni are supporting more than 500 students. A modified programme is being piloted within the research degree student body.
Comments from the Pentacell development group include:
Assistant Professor of Learning and Teaching, Michael Hill, said:
“This innovative model was developed in the context of a highly diverse student population situated around the globe who were commencing their study in an unfamiliar online environment. We’re recognising how the model can be improved and how it might be transferred to other settings. We think it has great potential for students’ wellbeing and subsequent engagement and success on their programmes.”
MSc Public Health Programme Director, Ford Hickson, commented:
“For a Programme Director, Pentacell provides a valuable way to help integration in a diverse student body and as a forum to develop the soft skills we wish to foster in global public health professionals. I know from numerous comments by students how much Pentacells were valued.”
Alumnus and Pentacell Facilitator, Tom Osborn, said:
“I have loved welcoming new students into a university I have such fond memories of. It has been incredibly rewarding to see them arrive at the beginning of a daunting experience and then thrive during their first term while being part of Pentacell. I don’t think this would have been possible without other alumni who clearly care a great deal about the School and their students – a wonderful way to develop relationships and a sense of belonging to a community where lifelong friends are made.”
Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, Clare Matysova, commented:
“It has been so positive to see how EDI and sense of belonging have been core to the development of Pentacell from the outset. We launched our new EDI strategy in July 2021 which sets out LSHTM’s commitment to providing an inclusive study and work environment reflected through a community that everyone feels a part of. Pentacell is a really inspiring initiative which reflects this commitment.”
Head of Alumni Relations and Regular Giving, Alice Perry, said:
“It has been fantastic to work with colleagues from across our School as part of the Pentacell Development Group. This innovative project has made a real difference in supporting our students. Thank you very much to all our amazing alumni volunteers.”
Blog post originally written for LSHTM Alumni blog (November 2021).