Edith Cowan University – SOAR Program
The SOAR Program (Support, Opportunities, Advice, Resources) is a peer-to-peer support service created by Edith Cowan University (ECU) in 2009. ECU Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students are employed to run the service, providing them with casual work which is relevant to, and that complements, their studies. Called SOAR Ambassadors, the HDR students provide their peers with the opportunity to have one-on-one consultations in various skill areas relevant to research design, methodology, software and general skills necessary to succeed and cope as an HDR candidate. SOAR Ambassadors themselves learn and develop their leadership, interpersonal and communication skills along the way. Developing these attributes means they will be better placed for employment in the future, and this is one of the program’s main aims.
The SOAR Program also aims to engage the broader research student cohort by building a self-sufficient research community and provides research skills training and support, career guidance, referrals to staff and resources and, importantly for international students, support with managing cultural and academic transition issues.
SOAR Ambassadors have become more than a simple point-of-contact; they are mentors, advisors, and role models to their peers. They promote and support equity, collaboration, discussion, learning, training, and engagement. The Ambassador group has established themselves as leaders in student engagement, creating a positive research culture and university experience and guiding others through the many challenges associated with the research journey.
Over half of the Ambassadors employed by SOAR have been international students. These students in particular have benefited not only from regular paid employment, but from developing a network of peers outside of their immediate discipline group, building professional networks among staff working across the university, gaining familiarisation with Australian work culture, having opportunities to develop and teach workshops and training sessions, and from participating in targeted professional development such as cultural awareness, career development and customer service.
International students now make up over one third of higher degree by research student enrolments at ECU. SOAR benefits this cohort through encouraging students to drop-in to consult on various topics with an Ambassador, often on topics students feel may be too trivial to raise with their supervisors, such as mastering public transport, or basic software troubleshooting. Small group workshops run by Ambassadors have broadened the training opportunities available to international students, and many are targeted towards this group such as ‘Effective Strategies for Improving Academic English’ and ‘An International Student Perspective of a New Culture and the Challenges of a Research Degree’.
ECU has been rated highly by higher degree by research students in the International Student Barometer survey since 2011 (consistently rated Top 10 in the world; Top 3 in Australia), and the SOAR Program has been instrumental in maintaining these high levels of satisfaction. SOAR has become a model for peer-to-peer support for research students in other Australian institutions, and also for programs within ECU supporting undergraduate students.