Reaching Wider – A student’s experience

So I’ve been asked to write this article for the Waterfront, Swansea University’s Newspaper. Disclaimer: I am keeping it anonymous. Not because I’m afraid of people knowing who I am, but more to do with the fact that the message I’m trying to get across feels more important than ‘owning’ the message, or naming the person behind it. I’m currently employed as an assistant psychologist; this involves working therapeutically with children and young people who are in foster or residential care, And I adore my job.

But less about what I do, and more about how I got there. I’ve not finished my journey yet (not by a long shot if it’s up to me), but to get to where I have has required qualifications, higher education qualifications. It sounds so simple and straightforward but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

University. For anyone, this is an equally terrifying and exciting prospect, but for someone who is care experienced (and I use this term because no-one should be categorised as a “looked-after child” – I mean, you’re not exclusively known as an adult single university graduate are you?!), this brings a whole new level of anxiety. Where do I live in the holidays when everyone else goes how to their families? Who will help me move into my halls? Will everyone know that that person moving me in is my foster carer or social worker? How do I explain that I got onto my course with less UCAS points than was needed because it’s accepted that my experiences made it harder to get my A-levels? Where do I go if I have money struggles, or any struggles? What if I fail? (If you aren’t care-experienced you are unlikely to know how the expectation that you are going to fail at everything you try hard at, creeps into every plan wish and dream that you have). The list went on… And as I’m sure you can imagine, the idea of not going to University was fast becoming my preferred choice. So, when I was pretty much determined to find as many excuses not to go, what was it that changed my mind?

To me personally, getting my degree was a way to rise above the perception that all care-experienced children become a statistic, and a statistic that fails at life. My degree was my platform to a professional job, career and a path for me to follow to stop me from becoming another ‘poor child, had such a bad start in life there was no hope for her’. There is always hope. You just need to dig deep and find the determination to get you to exactly where you want to be.

My foster carers. Also known as my mum and dad (I honestly believe that you have to earn the title of mum and dad. Anyone can become a biological parent). They knew me pretty well. Well enough to know that I wanted to bail. And well enough to know that if they didn’t give me a big giant metaphorical push, there was no way I would ever get to University. With the support of my mum and dad I managed to get there. To Swansea. To halls. And I am so very lucky that I had their continued support and encouragement throughout the whole thing – I know that there are so many others who don’t have this, and it sucks.

The experience of applying to Swansea University as someone who is care-experienced. As soon as I applied through UCAS and ticked the ‘looked-after child’ box (I flipping hated ticking that box!), the University contacted me to offer additional emotional and practical support. This is not what helped me get to University, although on reflection, I am so impressed with the level of support. No, what really helped was that they listened to what I wanted. I am someone who does not do help. Or support. Or ‘talking things through’. So the offer of support was not well appreciated at the time, And I told them that. I told them to leave me alone. And to be fair to them, they really really did, whilst also letting me know that they were always there if ever I decided that I did need them. Feeling accepted, not judging and listened to made me trust that the University would not tell everyone that I was in care, and would not treat me differently to everyone else.

So, all of the above factors helped me to get to University (as well as a million other little things that I can’t remember right now – it was 8 years since I started Uni – and I feel old right now!). These things helped helped me to stay in Uni, to succeed at Uni and graduated in 2012 with a BSc in Psychology. Don’t get me wrong, it was tough and there were times where I felt really low, and under pressure and like I wanted to walk (or run) away from it all but for me personally, the biggest challenge was getting there in the first place. And do you know what, I think I would have been proud of myself even if I left, or quit, or took time out, or didn’t get as good of a grade as I wanted. Because for the first time in my life I took a risk. And it paid off.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is if University is part of your life plan, don’t let your early experiences hold you back. Don’t let them define you and never let anyone (even yourself) make you feel that you are not good enough. There is extra support from the Union’s Advice & support Centre (advice@swansea-union.co.uk). And if not needed, just know that it is there (kind of like a safety buffer).

One thing that I learned from being at University is that everyone has a past. You don’t stick out like a sore thumb and scream “child in care!” – that is more about your own perception of yourself that anyone else’s perception of you. And the good thing is that no-one’s parents/family are really around. Not that much. Your friends become your family. And that way you can choose your family and those around you. And that’s a really nice feeling to have.

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