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Desperately seeking the Rev Susan

"It's not just about praying," says the Rev Susan Hardwick of her role as chaplain at Hereward College, Coventry. "It's about all aspects of college life because things like ethics and values and morals impinge on all those areas. "

Staff and students seeking out Susan do not have to venture near a chapel - she might be found in the refectory, in a common room or a corridor. Her aim is to be available to all who may want advice, help or simply a sympathetic hearing, either with or without a specifically Christian slant.

The role places her in a unique, if occasionally isolating, role in college. "You have got to stand slightly outside the system yet able to relate to all of it, from governors to cleaners. You are a bridge-builder because you are the only person in the institution without a particular agenda."

Neutrality is a crucial asset for a college chaplain. Susan, working part-time at Hereward for more than four years and also a church field officer to FE colleges throughout the Coventry diocese, has seen first-hand the divisions which can spring from post-incorporation belt-tightening.

"When colleges are making people redundant, or battling over contracts, you cannot be an advocate for just one group. You might feel great sympathy for some of the staff who have been badly affected and may feel deeply threatened, but you can't actually have the luxury of becoming their champion.

"You have got to support them and perhaps represent their feelings to the management, but not take sides against senior staff, who also have stresses and strains to cope with. It is quite a balancing act."

For students, times of stress are more closely tied to the rhythms of the academic year. Exam time has inevitable pressures, and the start of autumn term can prove traumatic. Relationship strains and sexual and spiritual concerns are less seasonal.

Students may also need to tackle the most profound questions. At Hereward, a residential college specially designed for students with disabilities, Susan has been asked by young people: "How could a loving God do this to me?"

It is vital to avoid the "smug, compact little answer", she finds. "People think young people don't consider the big issues any more, but they do, able-bodied or not."

For staff and students alike, the chaplain can offer a listening ear when other college guidance services seem inappropriate. Susan says: "Colleges may see us as a particular aspect of general counselling provision. But the key with a chaplain is you don't have to have a particular identified problem such as housing or a relationship - you may not even know where the problem lies yourself."

Colleges have traditionally lost out to schools and higher education in attracting Church involvement, and many had little time for such luxuries as they turned their energies to efficiency measures on incorporation. Now, with 240 chaplains working in the FE sector, Susan believes the tide is turning.

"The Church has recognised the great and growing need in FE and has seen how remiss it has been, and colleges are realising there are so many issues around to do with ethical and moral value systems where they may need a bit of expertise."

For the chaplain, colleges, with all their variety, are harder to get a grip on than schools and universities, and offer less support than a parish. Yet, Susan believes, they may well be most receptive of all to the minister's role. "The FE philosophy is very Christ-like in its inclusiveness. He gathered all the fragments up - the people who were put aside were his particular clientele. "

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