A scheme which nurtures, develops and supports estranged students through their university life has won a major award.

The University of Sunderland’s ‘We Care’ initiative is a lifeline to scores of students who do not have a traditional family network to fall back on in times of need.

For the past three years, the project has extended a helping hand to previously under-represented young people, aiming to improve their life prospects.

Now, the We Care programme has picked up the Widening Access Initiative (Retention and Progression) Award at this year’s NEON awards. The Awards celebrate the transformative power that higher education can have.

Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said: “This award from such a prestigious national organisation like NEON is a great honour for the University.

“We are particularly pleased to be recognised for our work with estranged students as it speaks to who we are, and what we seek to do, as an institution. In particular, we are open and welcoming to all, irrespective of their personal circumstances.”

It was in 2017 that the University became the first in the North East to sign up to the Stand Alone Pledge to develop support for estranged students in higher education.

Taking the pledge meant that the University was publicly committing to supporting students lacking a family network, reaching students who were previously under-represented in widening participation initiatives, but are three times more likely to drop out of higher education.

The team focused on four areas that, according to research, estranged students needed the most support: finance, accommodation, mental health and wellbeing, and outreach and transition.

Wendy Price, Head of Widening Access and Participation, said: “We introduced personalised support for each student, including a £2,000 bursary and a single point of contact, meaning that students had a relationship built on trust.

“We also provide a bespoke support package based on each student’s individual needs. This could include help moving in, support applying for part time work as well as guaranteed accommodation.

“We recognise that there are certain times of the year which estranged students can find difficult so we reach out to them all regularly; this includes birthdays, Christmas, Easter, exam periods and preparation for graduation.

“Our students are at the heart of all that we do, improving access to higher education and social mobility for a largely forgotten section of society. We recognise that every segment of our community requires tailored, bespoke support.”

This Year, the University of Sunderland was also named University of the Year for Social Inclusion in the Time and Sunday Times Good University Guide.

Wendy added: “Although we have been supporting estranged students since 2017, never has the need been greater than it is today, in 2020.

“And while this Neon award recognises our efforts so far, we are not complacent and will continue to work closely with our students, actively listening and prioritising the support they tell us they value most.

“For colleagues who don’t yet offer additional support to estranged students, I’d urge you to please consider doing so. The Stand Alone Pledge is an excellent national initiative which enables you to publicly demonstrate your support. If your institution hasn’t already signed this pledge, please look into it.”

Case study: Alex Hoey

Alex Hoey is studying Media Production at the University of Sunderland.

Among the many estranged or care experienced students at the University, Alex lost his mother to cancer last year, and is now estranged from his father.

The 20-year-old runs a small business making costumes for cosplay enthusiasts and is looking forward to his future media career.

Alex said: “At the moment I have to just take every obstacle as it comes and live in the moment. I have no clue where the next few years will take me, but I would like a career in the media, and would also like to continue with my business on the side.

“I have amazing friends who are always wanting to hang out, but also respect that sometimes I need time to myself.

“My friends unwavering support along with the support of the University have been central to me making it through the last year, so I am extremely grateful and lucky.”