Spring 2021 Mentor Review

This review of the weekend was written by two of our fantastic mentors. Harriet has mentored for KAN for four years and studies BSc Psycholgy with American Studies at the University of Sussex, with a year abroad at a university in California. Vee is a new mentor, assigned to the 2018 cohort, and she studies BA English at Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

The event began with afternoon sessions that took place on Friday 26 March. These included sessions run by The Brilliant Club for the 2018 and 2020 cohorts, an analytical writing workshop for the 2019 cohort, and a session on preparing for university for the 2017 cohort. Personally, I came away from the preparing for university session with the 2017 cohort feeling extremely proud to be part of KAN. The session was also attended by several KAN alumni who are midway through their first year at various universities and were happy to share some insights and advice with the current Y13 students. The conversation flowed for the entire 1.5 hour time slot, with some brilliant questions asked and the 2016 alumni providing some fantastic answers. The students came away with new knowledge that they had not yet considered, such as how to access healthcare at university and things to pack when moving into university accommodation that may not be initially obvious. The mentors were largely able to sit back and take in the conversation, in the most positive possible way. 

Students from other cohorts also benefited from new knowledge and advice. For example, eight students from the 2020 cohort were encouraged to think critically about how the cost of education maintained social inequalities in the 18th century, while also practising the critical skill of using evidence to strengthen their arguments. Similarly, eight students from the 2019 cohort were highly engaged with their session, which required them to consider the impact of language in advertising, and how this can be manipulated to create an emotional response in consumers. The students also came away having learned or revised some commonly used literary devices, which they will be able to apply to their own work in English and other subjects at school. 

Following the cohort-based sessions, everyone came together to listen to Jesse Elzinga, head of Sevenoaks School, speak about overcoming adversity. This was a very positive session, and Mr Elzinga spoke about many topics that likely rang true for many students, including imposter syndrome, being doubted by others and the power of sleep and exercise. He told us about his upbringing on an apple farm in Detroit, the teacher who most inspired him (Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society), his love of TikTok for winding down, and of course his experiences at Harvard and Oxford.

On Saturday, March 27, the day began with some fantastic sessions such as Russian, drawing, higher education advice for the 2018 cohort and a Geography revision session for the 2017 cohort. These sessions were highly engaging, and it was great to see the seven students at Jon Drury’s Russian session all copying the sounds and words with their cameras switched on, with everyone overcoming their insecurities to make the most out of the lesson. After a little encouragement from Isla, the Year 10 and 11 students in the GCSE Science workshop were also ready to engage and were very enthusiastic once they learned which content they would be studying. One student verbally fed back to the session leader that they loved the session, which was extremely heart-warming to hear as a mentor. This session was also full of practical exam advice, which was reassuring for the students who may have missed out on a large amount of exam practice due to the closure of schools throughout 2020 and 2021. Similarly, the students from the 2017 cohort who attended the Geography revision session also left having practiced some real past-paper questions, which was very useful given the disruption Covid-19 has caused to their A-levels. 

The academic sessions continued into Saturday morning, with students having the opportunity to attend a French translation workshop, a history session based on African-American politics and the ancient world, a particle physics workshop or an A-kevel chemistry revision session. The students seemed to find the chemistry session highly reassuring, as the session leader covered the topics that the students had requested in advance. Therefore, the students had an opportunity to learn from a top-class teacher about the topics they have most struggled with. The teacher also ensured the session was accessible, which was reflected in how comfortable all of the students felt to answer questions using their microphones.

On Saturday afternoon, the students were given some well-being support, which has proved vital for many young people throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. At the last virtual mentoring session earlier in March, several students reported feeling anxious about the reopening of schools and the cancellation of traditional exams, and so it was great to see that this was addressed directly at the residential weekend. The students considered how they can feel supported by the KAN community, which will help towards them feeling hopeful for the future and ambitious about achieving their goals. It was also a good chance for the students to reflect on any positives they could take away from lockdown, which helped them to feel more optimistic for things to come. Students then attended a fantastic session centred on global development, which was particularly useful in introducing the students to the perspectives of individuals living in different societies (such as Ghana), and how responses to social change efforts may be received very differently in other cultures. 

Saturday finished with a talk by Chris McNamara, who really showed his expertise in how schools and organisations can help to boost social mobility for young people. Chris discussed all of the different pathways available to aspiring professionals. It was fantastic to see this covered, as students have asked questions regarding options such as degree-level apprenticeships in the past, and this had emerged as a knowledge gap for the KAN mentors. Chris also discussed the soft skills that employers are likely to look for in the near future, including resilience and emotional intelligence, and it was great to gain a sense that the students were thinking about their soft skills as well as their hard skills and expertise. Finally, Chris touched upon the importance of LinkedIn and networking, which inspired me to request a session based on this at the summer 2021 residential, demonstrating how Chris had made a tangible impact on the KAN programme, and therefore the benefits KAN has for the students. 

On Sunday morning, students had the opportunity to consolidate subject knowledge for upcoming assessments in A Level Biology and GCSE History, consider the social and political impact of journalism as well as participate in a study skills session run by KAN mentor alumna Finn Manders (now Schools Liaison Officer at Emmanuel College, Cambridge). Students particularly valued the chance to have some small-group teaching and bespoke learning to aid their revision. We later discussed a scientific paper, considering the evolution of mate selection, written by evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Buss. Students critically analysed Buss’ research and were not afraid to challenge the results and relevance of his findings, developing an independence of mind and academic confidence that will prove invaluable in the future. In addition to these familiar subjects, taster sessions were offered to broaden students’ minds covering subjects as diverse as paleo-ecology, Roman chariot racing and linguistics. Feedback from the students was extremely positive: they felt reassured about their current academic progress, intrigued by unfamiliar topics and confident to express their opinions in front of leading experts.

The afternoon provided a selection of well-being sessions including yoga, kick-boxing and even a virtual treasure hunt. The exercise programmes were particularly successful, meanwhile, the virtual treasure hunt provided a new lockdown social activity for those seeking an alternative to quizzes. Fun, refreshing and engaging, both students and mentors highlighted the importance of these sessions in conjunction with the academic opportunities offered through KAN during the pandemic and beyond.

In the evening, KAN was delighted to welcome returning speaker Dr Danielle Stewart, currently strategy manager at the National Grid as well as a former physicist and 3x world duathlon champion. Danielle discussed her journey from the Isle of Sheppey into a career in STEM as well as the challenges she faced along the way including: imposter syndrome, the loss of loved ones and injury. She advised students that the path to success is rarely straight, saying ‘you are capable of so much more than you think’. A necessary reminder for us all. 

Monday saw the students return to school and the final day of our virtual residential programme. Year 10 and Year 12 students had their last Brilliant Club tutorial before being given advice on academic writing by their mentors in preparation for drafting their final assignment: a 2500 word dissertation or scientific report, a form of assessment typically expected from undergraduates! All the Brilliant Club tutorial leaders (current PhD students or early-career academics) were highly complimentary about the students’ engagement, with one session leader claiming their group provided him with some of the best teaching experience he ever had on the Brilliant Club programme thanks to their hard work and ability. They will now write their assignment over the Easter holiday and receive feedback on it in May. Simultaneously, Year 11 and Year 12 students participated in a highly topical debate: ‘Should we abolish prisons?’. Led by current KAN mentor, Alex Lindsay, students considered prison culture and differing approaches to reducing crime and re-offending. This highly engaging session allowed students to apply their critical thinking and analysis skills in contexts outside of the classroom, giving the chance to share their voice and opinions on real-life issues.               

We then welcomed our final evening speaker, Sir Damon Buffini, businessman and cultural philanthropist. This talk was a chance to respond to his recent podcast episode on The Times ‘Past Imperfect’ series. Students asked about how they should go about building self-belief, the risks involved in changing career and for advice on coping in unwelcoming environments. He also gave insights into one of his current roles as Chairman of the National Theatre and the Cultural Recovery Fund, discussing how the arts sector involves people from all kinds of backgrounds, not just artists, emphasising the importance of differing perspectives.

Most importantly, Sir Damon stressed the importance of kindness and mutual respect in the workplace and beyond. One Year 13 student summarised this quite eloquently, ‘People will always remember how you made them feel.’ This comment is just one of many instances where, as a mentor, I found I learnt just as much from the KAN students as I did from the session leaders.