Niamh is the Project Leader for the iNUGS Widening Participation Scheme project, part of UCL’s Surgical Society. This year, the project worked with the London Academy of Excellence, which is based in East London’s Borough of Newham.

Niamh is a medical student in her third year and has chosen Global Health as her intercalation year subject.

Tell us a little bit about your project.

Every year, the Surgical Society runs the largest student led conference in the UK called iNUGS, which is the International Undergraduate and Foundation Surgical Conference. This conference is organised by the Surgical Society’s vice president.

My project is based around the widening participation goals of this conference, so as a project leader for this SLP, I lead the widening participation aspect of the conference.

To fulfil these goals, we reached out to Sixth Forms and state schools to invite some of the students along to UCL. This way, students could get some experience in a university environment. We ran some workshops for them based on their level, so as A level students, we had a team in to talk to them about topics like CPR, what medical school is like in general, and how to be good in interviews.

Tell us about your Project Leader role.

As the project leader, my responsibilities included doing a risk assessment, reaching out to the schools, and liaising with the relevant contact there, often it was either the head of one of the science departments or a specific medical school entry tutor, if the school had one. So my job is to talk with them, discuss the logistics of the day, keep them up to date on timings, what I needed from them in terms of partnership agreement forms, consent, DBS checks, allergies, etc.

Also, I organise the day itself, so making sure I had a team of volunteers to help run the day and make the students feel welcome, and just making sure everyone knew where they needed to be.

Why did you want to become a Project Leader?

I wanted to lead this specific project because I myself come from a widening participation background. I came from a state school, and I wanted to offer some of the opportunities my school offered to me, in terms of entry into medical school, to other schools. I know not every state school has the same level of support that mine did, we had specific tutor groups and days out to universities to help us with our application, and I wanted to offer that to other state schools because I think it was so great. It definitely helped me.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by leading your project?

I've received absolutely fantastic feedback from the schools who came along, it was really, really nice to hear. The teachers from some of the schools say that students can’t stop talking about it, they really enjoyed the day and they found it really exciting and helpful.

Through that direct feedback I feel like I may have impacted on their approach to medical school, and their enthusiasm about applying and what the future will hold.

Also, through talking to our team of volunteers, I think the schools got the opportunity to feel out what studying medicine is really like, for example in terms of work life balance and lifestyle.

I think that also it makes people feel more excited because they understand that university can still be really fun even if you're studying something like medicine. It's not all work, it's great, you have a really good community and group of friends, so I'm hoping that I've made a positive impression about medical school in general and also represented UCL well through myself and my volunteers.

What impact has volunteering, and leading a project had on you?

It's definitely taught me a lot. I've run projects before, but this one was very full-on because I was the only one organizing everything. So it definitely taught me a lot about meeting deadlines, time management, being persistent, and dealing with adversity.

A lot of the schools didn't reply until the last minute, we had some people drop out last minute because of the strikes, and there was a lot of last-minute commitments because the conference was on a Saturday. So it definitely taught me a lot about being patient and resolving challenges.

I hoped it would have a positive impact on the 6th formers, but the degree to which they were happy and excited and really engaged taught me how much it would mean to other schools, and I wish in the future to get more schools involved in something like this, because the positive impact was beyond what I expected.

How has your network developed whilst being a Project Leader?

I got to meet other project leaders on the Project Leader Development Day, that was really nice. I've got more experience talking with the SU and with people who are working with the SU, especially Anjumon, who was my supervisor, gave me so much support, she was so good and I'm hoping to work again with her in the future.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered? How did you overcome this challenge?

Probably the schools not responding to me. I was emailing schools ever since I got my risk assessment approved, so from November till March, and I still only got 2 schools to participate. It was very difficult to recruit partners because the conference was on a Saturday, so I had to convince both teachers and students to come along on a Saturday on their day off. Another challenge was people initially showing interest and asking to be signed up, and then dropping out or not getting back to me.

I overcame that through being persistent and really chasing people up so I knew where everyone was standing, so if they suddenly can't make it anymore, that was completely fine but I just needed to know I wasn't expecting them. Also, I got a lot of support from my peers who were running the wider conference. The Vice President of the Surgical Society, who was running the entire conference, she really supported me in contacting other members who were running the conference and other students in our year who went to state schools in London so they could suggest their school for me to contact, because if the other students were alumni, they might be more likely to get back to them, so we used this strategy.

Tell us something memorable that’s happened to you whilst being a Project Leader?

On the day of the conference, one of the teachers that accompanied the students pulled me aside and said how amazing it was and how happy she was that they got to attend, and she asked if they could get involved with something like this in the future, and if next year we're going to run it. It just showed me how much it was a success, it’s what I needed to know, that the day was good, and they really wanted to come back or get involved in the future, that was just great.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about being a Project Leader?

Probably to be really, really organized and strict with your time. Make sure you set yourself deadlines and stick to them, you want things done as early as possible, because it takes a while, especially if you're working with schools, to recruit them. So get your risk assessment done, get your project plan done, get everything done, and then you can really focus on your recruitment for your volunteers and partners, and just make sure you have it done in a timely manner.

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