A North East university has been nominated for two national awards, in recognition of its pioneering support for some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalised young people.
The University of Sunderland work with estranged students has led to it being nominated for a Guardian University Award in the Widening Access and Outreach category and a WhatUni Student Choice Award for the Best Prospective Student Engagement Campaign.
Estranged students are young people who are studying without the support or approval of a family network. In January 2017 the University of Sunderland became the only university in the region to commit to the Stand Alone Pledge: a commitment to create the right environment and conditions for estranged students.
Sunderland initially identified 81 current estranged students. They set up a support team with the aim of ensuring that these young people stay resilient and are not held back from succeeding in Higher Education.
Keiran Cull, 20, is in the second year of her degree in BSc Physiological Sciences at the University of Sunderland. Originally from Portsmouth Keiran has pursued her studies, with the eventual aim of becoming a neuroscientist – despite a difficult childhood and a life spent independent from her family.
“I’ve been estranged from my family for three years,” she says. “My dad died when I was fourteen, and my mum’s mental health declined and she became an alcoholic. She decided she didn’t want any relationship with me or the rest of the family.
“I chose to come to university because I always thought I could do more. I was always told I couldn’t, but I want to prove I am intelligent, though people have told me all my life that I’m not. I’m here, and I’m still going, and after my degree I’m going to study for a Masters degree.
“I believe I can do it, and I’m going to prove that I can.
“Throughout college I worked 36 hours a week. I lived in a shared house when I was seventeen. There was nothing to support people like me. I had £6 housing benefit and my rent was £400 a month, so I had to work.
“It was a very difficult decision to come away from home to go to university. Though I don’t have parental support I’m very close to my sister, and it was hard to leave her behind. We drove up to Sunderland together, an eight hour car drive with everything I owned in the car.”
Every estranged student has unique issues and challenges, so the Estranged Student Support Team works closely with each one to create a personalised support package, ensuring that they make informed study choices, settle quickly into university life, enjoy their student experience and achieve their potential.
Several new initiatives were introduced in 2017, including an extended accommodation offer, guaranteeing estranged students’ accommodation for 52 weeks a year, crucially including the holiday period. The University introduced a new ‘We Care’ scholarship of £1,500 for each year of study, and support with student finance and funding, employment and part time work, and mental health and wellbeing support.
Keiran struggled financially in her first year at university, unaware that help was available, but a phone call to the team changed everything.
“I met with the team, and they just said, “We can help you with everything” – and it wasn’t until they said that that I actually realised I really needed their help.
“It has taken a lot of worry off my mind. I thought I would have to move out in July, and they have already said they’ll help me with that.
“At the start of my degree I was working just as hard in my job to support myself, but the financial support I now receive has allowed me to reduce my hours and really focus more on my studies, and hopefully get my grades up a little higher.
“I want to be a neuro scientist, and when I’ve completed my degree I want to study for a Masters degree. When I was in college I supported myself by working in a dementia care home, and I became fascinated with the human brain. I also worked as a funeral director when I was seventeen – and I became interested in the human body. I want to learn more about dementia, and try to help people.
“Having the financial support is very important, but the thing that really matters to me is having someone there offering me support. Having someone to talk to is so important to me. Knowing that there’s someone there when I feel down, or I’m doubting myself, or I’m struggling with work, it means everything to me.”
Wendy Price, Access to Higher Education and Scholarships Manager at the University, heads up the Estranged Student Support Team and has worked closely with Keiran. She says: “We are delighted to have been shortlisted for these awards and hope that they will raise awareness across the sector of the importance of supporting estranged students.
“Our estranged students are among the most committed, resilient and ambitious people I have ever met. “
The team at the University of Sunderland consult with Students’ Union, and with estranged students on an ongoing basis, to ensure the student voice is central to their work. As a result of widely communicating with students and staff Sunderland is now working with 27 estranged students and that figure is growing, with more students coming forward each month. The University is seen as a national exemplar of Stand Alone – regularly advising the sector on how to recognise and engage with estranged students and sharing details of the practical support and advice Sunderland offers, which really makes a difference to the higher education experience and outcomes achieved by estranged students.
Dr Robert Trimble, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education and Student Experience), said: “National statistics show that estranged students drop out of higher education at a rate that is three times higher than the average student.
“We are committed to supporting all of our students and ensuring that they are not held back from achieving their potential. The support we offer is crucial to engage with these students and help them to complete their course.”
The Widening Access and Outreach category in the Guardian University Awards recognises an initiative that has demonstrably helped to increase the number of disadvantaged and under-represented students entering the university.
The University of Sunderland’s Estranged Student initiative has been shortlisted for the WhatUni Student Awards for Best Prospective Student Engagement Campaign for offering invaluable, tangible support to one of the most vulnerable and under-represented sections of society today, influenced and guided by estranged students’ own experiences and aspirations.
The results of both awards will be announced in April.
Quite a haul for the University of Sunderland
In a week of positive news for the University of Sunderland, Vice-Chancellor, Shirley Atkinson, commented:
“We began this week of successes with the tremendous news that our new University of Sunderland School of Medicine will open in September 2019. As the week has progressed we have also received these two nominations for national awards and discovered that our University has risen 25 places in this year’s Times Higher Student Experience survey!
“We know that the diligence and commitment of our University is outstanding and that our approach is life-changing; but this national recognition is hugely gratifying. My thanks and congratulations go to everyone involved in these successes.”