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Weekend Reading: Peer Support for Students Who Identify as Trans and Non-Binary

  • 8 June 2024
  • Last month, HEPI published research on the experiences of trans and non-binary students: you can read that report here.
  • This piece was kindly authored for HEPI by Sean Hourigan, Development and Training Manager at The Peer Partnership, a non-profit organisation which facilitates peer mentoring.
  • The Peer Partnership is hosting a webinar on the programme discussed in this blog – you can register to attend here.

The experiences of trans students at university differ significantly from their cisgendered university peers. Studies continue to show that they experience more instances of physical or emotional threat, do not feel that universities make reasonable adjustments for their recognition and inclusion, and have a concerning lack of faith in university staff or policies to address the issues that they are facing.

In 2022, we at The Peer Partnership worked with the University of Bristol to provide one-to-one peer support for students who identify as trans and non-binary. This was done in response to reports from the National Union of Students, Stonewall, and TransEDU highlighting the significant barriers that this cohort of students experienced to accessing and maintaining higher educational studies.

Due to my past, my family, and what career I want, I felt like trans people would not be welcomed and I was scared to transition. Now, I am able to move past those and feel hopeful for the future.

Mentee (2023)

The NUS 2014 survey of LGBT populations within university found that 51% of trans students have seriously considered dropping out of their course, with two-thirds of these identifying as not ‘fitting in’ as a significant factor. It also reported that 22% of trans students have experienced harassment, 13.5% threats or intimidation, and 5% were victims of physical assault within the university community, a percentage that saw an increase to 7% in a further report from Stonewall in 2018. Trans students also reported negative issues around reasonable adjustments that could support their recognition and inclusion in the university, such as gender-neutral toilets and facilities, and a lack of policies to update their name and gender. A further report by TransEDU in 2017 identified that 24% of trans students withdrew from university studies compared to 7.9% of the general student body, with 57% reporting that this was due to mental health issues, and 23% felt entirely unable to talk to their institutions about matters relating to their trans status.

We worked with the University of Bristol’s Student Inclusion Team to implement a programme of one-to-one peer mentoring for trans and non-binary students. This programme trained trans and non-binary volunteers from Bristol, not necessarily from the student body but from the population as a whole, in the skills necessary for providing support to students who might be struggling or coming to terms with being trans and non-binary in the higher education environment. The peer mentors provided weekly time and space for mentees to explore the issues that they were experiencing, ranging from the treatment they were receiving from other students or staff at the university to navigating being trans or non-binary in a city that may not be their home.

Peer mentors shared their own experiences and coping strategies for how they have managed comparable situations in their own lives and supported their mentees to work out what their strengths are and how to utilise them to manage their own circumstances, building both resilience and connections to the local trans and non-binary community. Peers are trained in communication techniques, goal planning, and how to maintain boundaries with their mentees, ensuring that they do not go beyond the limits of their role as mentors. Where mentees are facing significant issues around areas that are beyond the limits for mentors to support with, they will signpost to appropriate support both within and external to the university. By having mentors from the city, they are better placed to know which services are trans and non-binary friendly, as well as how to access them.

Having someone to speak to regularly that could relate to such a specific experience of not being cisgender was extremely helpful. She gave me guidance and support, and because she went through what I’m going through, I felt understood.

Mentee (2023)

This initial run of peer support saw 12 students complete mentoring during the 2022/23 academic year. Feedback saw 66% of participants report increases in self-esteem and their knowledge and ability to access relevant support services. 50% saw improvements in feeling that there are people at the university that they can talk to if needed, and that they felt that the university understood them as a person. 33% saw improvements in their ability to cope with their studies and in feeling comfortable participating in student life. These initial first year results are from a small sample size, but the positive outcomes mean that this programme will continue into the 2022/23 academic year to build on the early success and offer this service to a greater number of University of Bristol students.

This programme has also supported the University of Bristol to complete some of its wider work to improve the trans and non-binary student experience, including offering trans awareness training to staff and developing guidance for both staff and students on the issues that trans and non-binary students face at university.

With the release of HEPI’s Trans and non-binary student experiences in UK higher education report, and with evidence showing that 50% of trans students are considering withdrawing from education and 7% are leaving university without an award, it is more important than ever to introduce innovative services that are responsive and effective to support trans and non-binary students. We believe that lived-experience-led support, like that provided by the University of Bristol’s peer programme, can play a major part in this provision. This model of peer support has been designed to be transferable to other universities and translatable for student groups with other barriers to fully engaging and enjoying their educational experience.

We will be running an online presentation of this peer support service with the University of Bristol on Thursday 20th June 2024. If you would like to know more about this project or how you can set up a similar programme at your university, join us for this session by registering your interest here or please feel free to contact us to discuss peer support by calling 0117 955 5038 or emailing [email protected].

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