The University of Sydney

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a sweeping impact on domestic and international students studying at Australian universities, on top of prevailing public health, economic and social crises.

In March 2020, travel restrictions for international students from China were followed closely by the introduction of remote study for all students.

Faced with an array of new challenges, students grappled with changes to their study, work and living arrangements. Many lost face-to-face contact with their friends and University staff, making social relationships difficult to cultivate and information more cumbersome to access, initially.

The University of Sydney’s Peer Support Advisor (PSA) Program was created to tackle the complex social, academic, wellbeing and administrative challenges faced by the whole student community.

The PSA Program involves a team of student advisors, who are trained and paid as University casual staff and assist their peers remotely through a range of online workshops, groups and one-to-one interactions.

University of Sydney Vice Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence AC said that the initiative “provided invaluable support to thousands of students impacted by COVID-19, through approachable remote support, assistance in navigating services and peer connections, to reduce stress during a time of great disruption.”   

Student advisors are currently enrolled students who are fluent speakers of English and Mandarin.

Their supervisory team includes a clinical psychologist, who provides training and one-to-one support as needed. They also receive structured training in University-related information and referrals, compassionate communication and empathy, and boundary setting.

“COVID-19 has completely changed the way how we study, work and communicate with others, so a lot of students contacted us and expressed their loneliness and concerns when studying all by themselves” said Sophia Jin, a medical school student who participated as an student advisor in the program.

Students using this service gain access to someone who is experiencing similar challenges, but with specialised training and experience in navigating key aspects of university life.

Empathy and understanding were at the core of this initiative, as student adviser Jun Chu explains:

“The entire team is made up by current students, we understand their position and we know exactly what they are going through.”

In addition to the program, the university also responded with a comprehensive support package for students that included additional financial and legal support for all students facing hardship, additional mental health and student counselling services and online one-to-one career consultations to assist students with their career planning and job search, online workshops and employer information sessions.