When I went in to care, I was attending a grammar school sixth form that was obsessed with Oxbridge. If you didn’t go to Oxbridge then you were to attend a Redbrick university at the least.
Nobody seemed to have dealt with a student being taken into care before. Teachers would stop me in the corridor and ask me if there was any way they could help, and one usually very sarcastic teacher once held me back after a lesson to apologise for the day before, when he had walked past me after school in the corridor and asked, ‘don’t you have a home to go to?’
This didn’t bother me as much as it seemed to bother him. I was happy to talk about it, but it seemed to be a bit of a sore spot for teachers who weren’t quite sure what to say. Instead, I found them a lot more lenient, like their standards had been lowered to meet what they now deemed me capable of.
Outside of school, there were countless meetings, where people would introduce themselves, and we would talk about me without me saying anything. In one meeting, when I explained that I would be applying to university, I was told that they had never had a care leaver who had entered higher education before and it was a shock to everyone in the room. I was made to feel like I was amazing; special or superior to other care experienced people, for whom university was simply out of the question. In reality that’s not the case. Every care leaver can attend university if it’s what they want to do. They just need people who believe in them and are willing to plant the seed of success from the start.
Planting seeds of success early on
For me, my seed planters were a great mentor, Emma, who I met as I was going into care, and a very good pastoral teacher, Mrs B from my sixth form who I had built a relationship with since things had started to break down at home. Both of these women pushed me and continuously built me up, telling me how much I was capable of, and continually fighting my corner.
In another meeting Mrs B was asked for my predicted grades and when she said they were As and Bs members of the meetings said that it was a little ‘overly ambitious’ and that I should apply for somewhere with lower entry requirements as my back up. Mrs B was really firm in telling them that I was capable of getting those grades and that I would be able to go to the university that I had chosen.
The difference here was that Mrs B knew me and had the belief that I could achieve great things, whereas the other professionals in the meeting were planting seeds of doubt. They were making me question whether I was being overly ambitious, whether they realised they were doing it or not. Mrs B had a level of belief in me that I didn’t have in myself.
I did get those grades and I could go to the university that I had chosen. If Mrs B hadn’t been my advocate, then I would have most likely been persuaded to change my university choice by adults who thought they knew best.
That’s not to say that any of the professionals in the room were trying to knock me down, but it’s the subconscious things that stick, like the shock expressed at the idea that a care leaver would be going to university, or them asking my teacher if I was sure about my choice, rather than me.
People’s self-esteem starts to build from the moment they are born, by being praised and constantly having their belief in themselves reinforced by their families. Care experienced people often don’t have that support network of encouragement, and so often have little belief in themselves. I was very lucky to have met two people very good at their jobs, who knew how to rationalise my low self-esteem to me and to help me see past it.
My first experience of university life
When the time for university came, I just about had contact with my dad and his partner that had been built over a couple of years, and as he had a van he was able to take my things from my foster placement to uni for me. It was very minimal, he dropped me at the door, helped me to unload and left. Other students’ parents stuck around to get them settled in. One of my flatmates said the van driver was nice to help me inside with my boxes and I felt too awkward to tell him it had been my dad and it was the least he could do.
Several of my flatmate’s parents would come over regularly and take their child out for dinner, or shopping or they would Facetime each other to catch up, and I hated that I didn’t have any of that.
My flatmates’ dad started inviting me to join them when they went for dinner and I went along a couple of times. It was a kind gesture but it felt a bit like a pity invite. I would sit there whilst they talked about people back home, and I would always feel uncomfortable about him paying the bill. He would say he had money and I didn’t, and I could return the favour when I was earning more than him.
This was ironic, as what I did have was an awful lot of money. I had always worked. From fifteen I worked in a shop for two hours a night and by eighteen I was working evenings and weekends. On top of this, I had been encouraged to apply for the highest maintenance loan possible from student finance. On top of this I received money each term from the aftercare team, a weekly top-up, and a bursary from the university as well as a maintenance grant from student finance.
It seemed to me that nobody could do enough for me financially, but when the office closed on Friday at 5pm that was the end of support for the rest of the week.
At the end of the year, I decided to leave the course and I worked for a year, before applying to a different course at a different university. I decided I wanted to study creative writing, as I have always been articulate and enjoy expressing myself through words.
At first, the support at the university was incredible. I hadn’t realised how much support I should have been getting from my previous university that just wasn’t being explained to me.
As soon as I sent my application, I immediately had contact from my own key person and my own personal tutor. I quickly built a great relationship with my tutor and we had regular check-ins where we would discuss life after university. He was planting the seed for my bright future. He encouraged me to start applying for things that would help my employability. With his encouragement, I applied for a position as an intern for the university press and received the university excellence scholarship for my photography.
I felt truly supported.
At Christmas time in my second year, he left suddenly after a fall out with the department. Soon after, my ex-partner and I split, and he moved out of our shared flat. I was back to having no contact with my dad and a lot of my school friends had moved away to different universities. I was lonely and struggling with my mental health.
Whilst exceptions were made for me academically, meaning nobody questioned my absences, nobody from the department seemed to know how to help. When I broke down crying after one of my lectures, it was suggested by a tutor that I get counselling through the university’s service, his reasoning being that it would make my application for extensions on my coursework ‘look more believable’.
After being on the waiting list for a while I saw a counsellor and it all seemed okay, quite standard getting to know me stuff. I told her about my background, and how my mother had moved to Wales leaving me behind, and of my care experience. The next time I had a session with her she could barely remember who I was, she asked me if I thought my loneliness was down to ‘boy troubles’ and if ‘the way I was feeling wasn’t anything that a nice home-cooked meal at my mum’s couldn’t fix?’ I reiterated to her that I don’t have a relationship with my mum and she was shocked by it, even though we had spoken about me being a care leaver at length the week before.
I decided not to return for a third session.
When I told my tutor of the experience, he said that it was a shame that I had wasted an opportunity to help myself, and I hadn’t given it a real go. I told him what she had said about my mum and he didn’t understand what the problem was. He said my situation was highly unusual, ‘especially for someone at university’, and that she probably saw ten or more students a day, so it’s understandable that she might have forgotten the ins and outs of my session.
This was when I started to believe strongly that nobody cared. I thought that these people were paid to show up, read off the slideshow and leave. I lost passion for my degree entirely. Creative writing didn’t seem important, nothing did. My attendance dropped to 20% and I had started going out 4 or 5 nights a week with some new drinking friends so as to not be alone.
It was coming up to the time when we were supposed to be applying for jobs, or submitting manuscripts to publishers, and I was applying for trainee jobs in Aldi and Lidl because I had heard the money was good and they gave you a free car. Writing felt like a chore and the only place I wanted to be was the pub.
Passing the baton on
Somebody that had always been keeping her eye on me, was my mentor, Emma. She noticed that things were not great. I was cancelling our meetings and barely getting out of bed. On one of the times we did meet, I told her that my career aspiration was to be an estate agent because it seemed easy. She never judged, or nagged me about my decisions, but she did email my lecturer asking her to reach out to me. My lecturer seemed to take it seriously, as it had come from a fellow professional. This is what I needed. I had been slowly going under, and with no one at home to notice, and my low attendance being so regular, nobody had picked up on my depression except for her. She continued to make plans with me, to be patient when I cancelled at the last minute, and to speak to me about what was and wasn’t important to me in a career. With her help, belief and literally chaperoning me into a meeting at university where she made my tutors sit up and pay attention, I was able to get back on track and to get my grades back to a steady level.
Not being one to make life easy for myself, I fell pregnant in my final year and graduated with a First Class degree, before my partner and I bought a house in Sheffield to raise our daughter.
She’s now nine months old, and whilst she’s hard work, and there are moments where I wish I could send her back, she’s the most perfect little human who gives me a reason to get out of bed and to live my life every single day. She’s the most effective alarm clock that I’ve ever owned.
Going to the pub five nights a week is simply no longer an option. And along with motherhood came my realisation that whilst my life is by no means perfect, people do care and whatever you are feeling it is true that you are not alone.
My relationship with my dad and his partner changed completely for the better when I became a mother, and they started to view me as an adult in my own right, rather than a ‘challenging teenager’. I have my own family support system now and my daughter has been my own little miracle.
It is more important for me than ever to pass the baton on from those that built me up, advocated for me and more than anything believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. My mentor and my personal tutor have now become my friends and I am in the process of making contact with Mrs B. And with their help (again), I have decided that it is my turn to sew the seeds for someone else. So as of a month ago, I have been accepted to study for an MA in social work at the University of Sheffield.
When my mother left she told me that I was a hindrance and an attention seeker. And with my personal achievements, that came as a result of the support from the three individuals I have mentioned, along with the support of my partner and my daughter, I have proven her wrong. My aim is to ensure that nobody feels how I do in my darkest moment when my mother’s words replay in my mind.
I want everybody to feel empowered and valued, and that all starts with planting the seed from the very earliest opportunity.