The friendly and welcoming faces of student ambassadors, wearing their distinctive scarlet undergraduate gowns, are what greet the thousands of prospective students and their families when they visit St Andrews. In the first of a series of posts about what it’s like to be on the team, our intern Francis Newman sat down with the Principal Ambassador, Charlie Maguire, to talk about his role and experiences.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day,” Charlie muses when I ask what his job looks like.
And he’s right – the work of St Andrews’ cohort of student ambassadors is incredibly varied. Most visibly, 350 of the 409 registered ambassadors – all of whom are current students – work in St Andrews on visiting days, where they give tours, answer questions and show people around halls of residence. However, 250 are also registered to work on widening access projects. These projects work with students across Scotland to ensure that no student with the potential to do well is disadvantaged by socioeconomic circumstances.
It helps, Charlie tells me, that the ambassadors themselves come from a wide range of backgrounds. The group are remarkable in their diversity – they speak 33 languages and a third of them are from outside the UK. Out of those from within this country, many have themselves benefited from widening access programmes and can therefore share their own experiences with the students they are working with.
What’s the most common question they get asked on a visiting day?
“Why did you choose St Andrews?”
Charlie’s own answer will chime with many who spent their student days in the town. “The community,” he says. “A university of the right size; a chance to get involved in lots of things. Also, the degree structure – not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, the flexibility was a big help for me.”
Other questions that often crop up – is there anywhere to go out in the evenings? What are the connections to other places like? What’s the cost of living?
Occasionally there are more specific and unexpected questions too.
“Do you have a synchronised swimming team?”
No, Charlie responded when one prospective student asked him that – but if the club or society doesn’t exist you can create it yourself!
Are there any frustrations involved in the job?
“I wish more people asked more questions,” he says. Sometimes he gets the impression that students avoid asking certain questions – for example, about the nightlife in the town – because they are in front of their parents, and he wishes they threw off their inhibitions. Questions about the difficulties in living in a small town would also be welcome, he says – the absence of anonymity in St Andrews can be tricky to negotiate.
Interestingly he also tells of alumni who come back with their children to encourage them to come to St Andrews. “They can embellish your stories with their own experiences,” he says, “and highlight the things they enjoyed and the places they liked to go to when they were students.” The alumni are often impressed by the additional buildings and refurbished facilities that now exist: the regeneration of St Salvator’s Quad, for example, often impresses returning visitors.
Sometimes alumni come to try and persuade their younger siblings to follow in their footsteps, in which case they often share Raisin Weekend stories or talk about their experiences of St Andrews’ other unique traditions, and ask to look round their old halls.
“I love my job,” Charlie says when I ask how rewarding he finds his experiences. “Being able to give back to the St Andrews community in this way is very special, and I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to do so.”
It’s clear that his enthusiasm for the town and the University is matched only by his passion for communicating that to future generations of St Andrews students.