Led by youth development experts Dr Pat Bullen (pictured below) and Dr Kelsey Deane, both senior lecturers at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, Campus Connections Aotearoa is now in its third year and expanding rapidly as more students across the University are able to include the course as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
The young mentees come to the Faculty’s Epsom Campus once a week for four hours and alongside their university student mentors, get involved in a range of youth-focused activities designed to support their emotional, behavioural and educational development.
“They might spend an hour on school or career-related tasks, anything from help with homework to writing CVs, then they share lunch and afterwards they have a choice of fun activities which could be arts, sports or cultural,” says Dr Bullen.
“These activities are chosen by the young people. For example we’ve had a ‘Microwave Masterchef’ competition, they have use of the music rooms to learn guitar, the gym, the dance studio; all facilities that are lost when they stop attending mainstream school.”
She says these young people, who all between 13 and 15 years old, are often talked about in very negative ways, but the challenges they face are due to culminating risk factors that are beyond their control.
“Factors like intergenerational poverty, histories of trauma, abuse and neglect, high housing transience, involvement with care and protection and youth justice agencies. Considering all this, their resilience is humbling. When you’re with them you see how engaged, funny, bright and gifted they are.”
Campus Connections was originally developed at Colorado State University in the US and is delivered under license in New Zealand at the University of Auckland.
“It had the bones of a really comprehensive model which my colleague Kelsey Deane and I have adapted to the Aotearoa New Zealand context,” says Dr Bullen.
“As a person originally from Chicago in the US, although I’ve lived here for 30 years and my children have grown up here, and as Kelsey is originally from Canada, we were very aware we needed specialist help to make sure the programme was adjusted to meet the needs of young people in Aotearoa.
“So we engaged in a programme of cultural adaptation research through the appointment of a PhD student as well as asking for advice from cultural consultants, both within and outside the Faculty.”
She says now the programme has been running for three years, some young mentees are returning for a third time and the change is noticeable.
“What we’re seeing is the difference it’s making in their lives in terms of their social and leadership skills, self-confidence, sense of belonging and purpose about the future.”
And the positive results are not restricted to the mentees.
“It’s also such a rewarding and special course for our students who are gaining valuable skills and knowledge in community service through this course, some of which involve dealing with challenging behaviour and mental health concerns.”
She says many of these young people struggle to regulate their behaviour and emotions, which is often the result of accumulated trauma.
“But that’s all part of the learning experience for our students and we have a lot of support in place to keep everyone safe.”
Despite its obvious value, the programme is struggling for funding.
“It was initially funded by a partnership grant between the Vodafone NZ Foundation and the Ministry of Youth Development, and while we’ve received a grant towards the cost of running it this year from the Ministry of Youth Development, we are still short. It’s impossible for it to pay for itself, it’s not designed to make a profit.”
While Dr Bullen does have renewed hope under this government, she would like to see a more collaborative approach to funding social programmes.
“It’s great that our Prime Minister has spear-headed the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy. We hope this will result in ongoing funding for Campus Connections, an evidence-informed programme with a proven track record, especially given the lack of support currently available for young people in alternative education and the challenges they face.”
But she believes we still have a lot of unhelpful victim blaming going on against sectors of society.
“These young people have so much potential and they are entitled to, and deserve, the same opportunities afforded to all youth, like positive developmental opportunities, wellbeing and the support they need to actively participate in a meaningful life.”