I have wanted to go to university for as long as I can remember. I can still picture my mum talking to me about it for the first time, a special place where people go to learn about whatever they are interested in. To me, a whole place dedicated to learning sounded like a dream. As a young girl I loved school, I loved reading and writing short stories and poems, I was intrigued by maths and science, and most importantly I liked getting things right. Every parents evening and report card I’d eagerly await my feedback, to hear how good I’d been in class, how enthusiastic I was and how I’d do extra homework just because I felt like it. I’m not by any means suggesting that I kept up this unwavering enthusiasm as I ventured off into high school, but the sentiment was still there. I knew that I wanted to ‘grow up’ and go to university.
I would say that I grew up in an average working-class family. The estate I lived on was majority council owned and although many people worked, many didn’t. I never considered money to be an issue when I was a child, and it was never really mentioned by my parents. They always made sure we had everything we needed, and just like everybody else we had all the latest gadgets and gizmos.
Although I never felt as though I missed out on anything, a part of me knew deep down that I wanted more for myself. At that time, nobody on our estate had gone to university. I felt as though moving away to university would be my way out and being the first to go would show how far I had come in breaking away from the status quo.
My mum was my biggest champion!
Only now can I really see how ignorant I was, I never had to overcome any obstacles to go to university. Sure, my parents never sent me to a private school or paid for expensive tutors, but they always supported me and my goals. My mum would read all of my work, she would offer her advice. My successes were her successes. She would tell everyone she knew how proud she was and all those people I’d wanted so badly to leave behind would be proud of me too. When I think back now to how badly I wanted to go to university, I see my mum in the background wanting it just as much as I did. I can see clearly now that going to university was always an option for me, it wasn’t a matter of overcoming obstacles, it was merely about whether I wanted to take it or not.
My mum grew up on the same estate as me, she doesn’t talk about her childhood. The opportunities just weren’t the same for my mother, she dropped out of school aged 16, to get a job and move away from a disruptive family life. Because she was so young and unqualified the job market was much bleaker for her, she worked on a mushroom farm and then in a sandwich shop to get by. I have never once got the impression that she regretted having me and my brother at a young age. She was living with my dad; they were both working and they wanted a family. As I grew up, my mum had a number of small jobs, she volunteered at our primary school for a while and eventually landed a job as a teaching assistant.
The biggest and arguably the most important difference between my story and my mother’s is our support network. The entire journey of my education was propped up by a vast support system of my own personal ‘cheerleaders’, from my mum, my family, our neighbours and friends and now my partner as well. This support network simply didn’t exist for my mum. When she decided she wanted to go to university to study Primary Education, the people who were supposed to care for her the most were bitter. They liked my mum best when she wasn’t reaching for her goals, I think deep down her ambition make them feel insecure. When she graduated, it was these same people who belittled her successes, as though putting yourself through university with two small children and a job wasn’t something to be celebrated.
But not everyone has the support I did
When I look back on this time, I wonder how my mum took all of this in her stride. How she ignored the people who tried to bring her down and rose up to the challenge of higher education. I ask myself how hard it would have been to settle into university after years of being away from what was at best a turbulent education. To be a teacher, my mum had to go back to college and get her GCSE qualifications in her thirties. At a time when I should have been most inspired by her, I was instead jealous of her taking some of my ‘limelight’. Nothing ever changed for my mum, every goal she reached the animosity she received was the same. When we all should have been empowering her, there were people telling her to ‘quit whilst she was ahead’ and that ‘it might not be worth it’, as if reaching for her goals was a luxury they could not afford.
More and more higher education institutions are making equal opportunities for those with low socioeconomic backgrounds a priority. People are finally discussing the very real barriers some people face, and are now making provisions to ensure the same opportunities are available for everybody.
“I hope to encourage at least one student to stay true to their goals”
In the end I did go to university; in fact, I never left, so I know how important it is to make sure that people of all backgrounds have a chance at higher education. The Access Project is a fantastic charity who aim to provide support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and empower them to succeed. I volunteer for this charity, not for people like me but instead for my mother. I wish there were more opportunities and support networks available for her. I hope to encourage at least one student to stay true to their goals and give them my support as they navigate their obstacles. As I continue my journey my mother continues to celebrate my successes, she tells me that one day I will conquer the world. Little does she know that she is the one conquering the world, and I couldn’t be prouder.