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Beyond Progression: Academic Advising for Community Drugs Programme Students


This Academic Advising project has been funded through the HEA and the National Forum.

PROJECT TITLE: Beyond Progression: Academic Advising for Community Drugs Programme Students
COLLABORATORS: Dr Micheal Collins, Dr Bairbre Fleming, Dr Graham Finlay, Liam Fogarty, Tobias Gunning, Dr Laura O’Reilly 
TARGET AUDIENCE: Current and future progression students from the UCD Community Drugs Programme



The UCD Community Drugs Programme is an innovative widening participation programme that provides both an undergraduate professional qualification for working in the field of community based drug and alcohol intervention, and an access route onto the second year of the BSocSc. Delivered in partnership with Urrus, Ballymun Youth Action Project, the programme features co-location, shared teaching delivery and joint programme recruitment and development.  The delivery of the Community Drugs Programme is based on deeply relational practice; between academics and associated staff; between staff and students; and between students themselves.

In 2020/21 we delivered a Learning Enhancement Project ‘Fulfilling Potential’ which sought to formalize the existing peer led educational and digital supports in order to enhance the learning experiences and outcomes of progression students (see Fulfilling Potential: Supporting Community Engagement Progression Students (ucd.ie). The students within the LEP Fulfilling Potential project clearly identified the need for and importance of academic advising, particularly in relation to their career planning, post graduate choices and ability to sustain their undergraduate study and we wanted to design a pilot academic advising project that reflected the deeply relational nature of the Community Drugs Programme structure.


This feedback and range of identified needs highlight both the general requirements in relation to the curriculum of academic advising, as well as the specific and sometimes subtle needs of those that may have experience severe educational disadvantage and exclusion.  Building on existing work, this project aimed to provide a range of tiered academic advising workshops and engagements for intending, current and postgraduate Community Drug Programme progression students over the course of an academic year in order to support individual students with decision-making and goal setting based on their academic performance, interests and talents.

Key features included:

  • Consideration of digital skills and engagement in assisting in academic advising and in supporting student development in order to enhance student autonomy and skill development in order to successfully navigate the educational context.
  • Involvement of postgraduate progression students in supporting and delivering workshops to their peers.
  • Supporting student participants to engage with and understand the role of academic advising given their potential or existing roles addressing exclusion and disadvantage within community settings.
  • Exploration of the role of digital literacy for the progression students.

We intended the project would have an immediate positive impact on; current progression students including those studying at postgraduate level; the project team in terms of increasing their knowledge, expertise and understanding of academic advising to widening participation students; incoming progression student currently studying on Diploma in Drug and Alcohol Work. 

The Innovative Approach

As noted the Community Drugs Programme is built and sustained on a joint vision of addressing educational disadvantage for those living in some of the most socially excluded contexts in Ireland. This vision is enacted through a partnership approach to all aspects of educational delivery and attainment, which extends to how we engage with and support students. Students currently on the programme, or taking up the progression route are already encouraged to discuss, assist in and contribute to programme delivery and addressing of gaps and challenges.  For this project this approach was formalized, with:

  • Inclusion of a progression student on the advisory group and as lead tutor.
  • Student informed and progression student led workshops on various aspects of academic advising pertinent to the progression students.
  • An action research cooperative inquiry project evaluation process to which we invited all student participants. An additional online questionnaire was included for those who could not attend the inquiry group.

The lead tutor also fostered less formal communication between the progression students, including checking in, informal meetings and conversations and ensuring that all students were included and communicated with if they had not been able to attend an event. In our previous work and projects with this diverse student cohort, we have found that flexibility in regard to scheduling of meetings, opportunities to connect back into the projects if events or sessions were missed, and a context of openness and trust to assist students to discuss any barriers to participation are effective mechanisms to ensure engagement. 


Given the relational approach to this work, and medium-term nature of students’ educational journeys, impacts and outcomes may be subtle or not definitive, particularly where students are dealing with substantial and long term educational disadvantage.  However, there were a range of outcomes and impacts for students, which were evidenced from; informal conversations throughout the project with participants; participation in the inquiry group; and feedback from the questionnaire. Key for the students was the relational nature of the academic advising supports:

I could not have asked for anything more. This group has been a huge support both academically and on a personal level.

One of the most pivotal workshops was the concluding session exploring postgraduate and career options, where students considered in-depth their trajectories and also their longer-term goals and potential achievements. The importance of identifying needs and responding to them was highlighted by one post graduate student in the inquiry group:

The informal sessions provided a space for students to discuss where they were at and any supports that they might need help with. Then, a workshop would be provided to meet the students’ needs.

Academic advising was felt to be critical by the students as they agreed they often had limited expectations of their own educational journey when they started the Diploma. As one student highlighted:

In five years you can go from accessing education on the Diploma to having a Masters in Social Work.

Consideration is now being given to how the learning from this project can be utilized within other widening participation initiatives, as well as how these supports can be continued for participants on the Community Drugs Programme. A key learning has been the building of capacity for the participating students to identify their needs and access UCD supports and information, as well as build their own self and peer advocacy skills, aspects that may be crucial to for targeted responses for widening participation students.