Oxford Case Studies: Pick Me Up Parcels

To the world at large, students have a ball. Their life is a smorgasbord of late nights and lie-ins, with the occasional lecture thrown in to keep them on their toes.

The reality is different. Students face intense academic pressure; many of them will have a hefty loan to repay when they graduate. Being at university can also feel lonely and isolating. For some, the pressure mutates into full-blown depression.

Emily Tench was a first-year Psychology and Philosophy student at Brasenose College when she decided to do something to help improve student wellbeing. Her venture, set up with help from the Oxford Hub, would go on to win an Oxford University Social Enterprise Award and benefit no fewer than five charities – all the while putting a smile on students’ faces.

“Pick-Me-Up Parcels wasn’t intended to be an answer for serious mental health issues,” explains Tench, who sat her finals in 2018. “However, I could see first-hand that people were struggling, perhaps because they were getting bogged down by the stress of their workloads or because they weren’t sure what direction their lives would take once they graduated. I wanted to do something to lighten their load.”

Student-led social action

Tench had long been interested in helping generate positive social change. Her lightbulb moment for Pick-Me-Up Parcels came when she attended a workshop hosted by Oxford Hub, a student-led social action group.

“The workshop encouraged participants to focus on making changes in their immediate environment,” says Tench. “We were asked to identify a problem we cared passionately about, and for me that was student mental wellbeing. Then we had to think of a business that could do something to help solve the problem.”

Tench jokes that she toyed with the idea of installing a giant waterslide outside the Bodleian library, before hitting upon “something more practical – a business delivering parcels filled with food and other goodies designed to make students feel happier.” She decided to establish the venture “on a ‘Pay-it-forward’ basis, whereby individuals are encouraged to send parcels to their friends rather than to themselves. Studies have shown that altruistic actions improve a person’s own sense of personal satisfaction and happiness.”

Benefits for charities as well as students

There was fun to be had with the choice of name, with Tench plumping for the alliteration of ‘Pick-Me-Up Parcels’, and before long she was ready to engineer, via a Facebook page, the sending of parcels containing “a selection of chocolates, a hot chocolate sachet, a cute animal post card and a pack of stickers or a mini teddy bear”.

The money awarded via the Social Enterprise award came in handy, helping to fund the creation of a website for Pick Me Up Parcels and rewarding volunteers with free parcels and pub socials. Pick-Me-Up Parcels went on to launch in summer 2016. Each parcel cost £2 to put together, but was sold for £3. Tench donated what turned out to be more than £400 in profit to four charities: Student Minds, Jacari, the Against Malaria Foundation and the Oxford Student Sexual Assault and Rape Crisis Centre. Two more Pick-Me-Up Parcel campaigns, in autumn 2016 and summer 2017, would generate another £200, again benefitting charities (the Against Malaria Foundation and Restore) as well as students. Again, Social Enterprise funding played an important role, helping to pay the upfront costs of the autumn 2016 campaign.

Tench says she enjoyed seeing the look on students’ faces, when they found a parcel in their pigeonhole, and hopes the idea can be rolled out at other universities.

“Why not?” she says. “It’s simple, easy to set up and best of all, it makes people happy.”

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