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The right word at the right time can be priceless;Opinion

THE pashmina is the colour of crushed raspberries and is woven from wool and goat hair and a little bit of magic. My colleague wears it like a shawl round her shoulders and we notice how calm she has become since she brought it back from her trek in the Himalayas.

The buying of the pashmina was one of the many stories she had to tell us. How she sat on a rug in Kathmandu, cross-legged, as the pashmina seller wove colours all around her. "Depends the quality, depends the price," he said. And finally she chose the one like crushed raspberries and brought it home.

We all covet the pashmina for its mystery and its calming properties. Splashed over the corner of her chair

in the workroom, it exerts a quiet influence, reminding us to slow down, to breathe, to think, when all around the pressure is for faster, hurry, do it yesterday.

We stay calm. We avoid those displaying symptoms of stress: increased consumption of chocolate, a craving for the canteen's luminous pink iced doughnuts. Under the quiet influence of the pashmina we remain serene. We know the secret of when to worry and when not to.

I could worry about Steve. A mature student surrounded by what he calls youngsters, he somehow got off on the wrong

foot with them. Perfectly at home writing reports and business letters, he decided to give himself the extra challenge of writing on gender issues for a lads' magazine.

He studied the market, read all the best-sellers on why men don't iron and produced a witty piece, written in what the late and dear Iain Crichton Smith once called the barbaric prose of popular magazines.

Worse, Steve has taken the laddish culture to heart and the carapace of a rather staid businessman is beginning to crumble. The class really like him now, though. So I don't worry about Steve and console myself with a swings and roundabouts metaphor.

I do worry about Lorna. A model student last year, she had drifted into becoming careless and diffident. By chance she was last to leave the class last week and on the spur of the moment I asked if she was disenchanted with the course. She burst into tears and I spent the coffee break dishing out paper tissues.

It wasn't the course, she confided, but other problems. She'd been on the point of chucking everything in but now she's going to talk to her course leader and try to sort something out.

And I worry about Peter. Yesterday he picked up on the most casual of enquiries about how he was doing and chose to unburden himself. No he didn't really want to talk to anyone else about it but he was glad of the chat. If stress levels are low in the workroom, they seem to be building in the classroom.

It's not always possible to spot when a student is having problems, especially when most of them simply struggle on regardless. Yes, there are support services in college, but sometimes students find it hard to ask for help. The people in the front line are lecturers.

Finding yourself in the middle of a heart-to-heart about life and stuff somehow seems more common than it used to be. Until two years ago, we had class tutors who were timetabled to meet students on a regular basis to offer help and support, and to refer them for advice when necessary. Not everybody found life and stuff difficult, of course. A chat with a class tutor might simply be to report that everything was fine and dandy. But if it wasn't, it was an opportunity to get things off your chest.

I suspect the system proved just too expensive. Budgets are tight, and prioritising can mean some hard decisions. How do you calculate the benefits of the right word at the right time?

One of our neighbouring institutions has just won accolades for the quality of the student experience. The success is due, they say, to the care they take of students as individuals and the importance they attach to a pastoral role. Depends the quality, depends the price. The pashmina seller was right.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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