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Finding a Sense of Purpose: My Journey to University

By, Billie

Your past always makes way for your future, even if you don’t realise it at the time.


I never thought about going to university until I was 16 years old. Before this point, all of my school friends had a clear plan in their head; their parents were university educated so they’re following in their footsteps. I didn’t have this journey to model my own on.

I grew up in a single person household, on a council estate in South Shields, with a very young mam. She had me when she was 16 and broke up with my dad soon after. In my early years, she had three jobs: a cleaner, a bar maid, and an assistant at the local hairdressers. I didn’t really compute the weight of that until a couple of years ago. She had three jobs, all some form of manual labour, and then would have to come home and look after a (slightly well behaved) child, on her own. University wasn’t an option for my mam. She didn’t go to college, as she was too busy being a mother and figuring that crazy new world out.

My dad on the other hand, could have had the whole world in his hands if he wanted it. He’s very intelligent, and quite introspective. However, when I was born, he was in prison. I won’t bore (or excite) you with the details, but growing up as a young lad in Whitburn in the 90’s could land you in a lot of trouble, depending on the crowd you got in with. He got out after a couple of months and has worked for my grandad’s block paving business ever since. So once again, a shaky role model who paved a way in life without a degree.

To me, going to university was something you did if you were rich, or wanted to be a lawyer, or a doctor. I ticked none of those boxes, so I put away the fleeting thought at 16 and carried on with my life. I then dropped out of college twice, and could feel my life falling down exactly the same path as both of my parents. “Well, they’re still alive, right?” I remember thinking to myself.

I found a fulltime job at Citizens Advice in Gateshead when I was 18, as I had moved out and needed to support myself financially. It was here, and I didn’t know it at the time, that I fell in love with Sociology. Speaking to people from all over the country about their struggles with the welfare system, or immigration regulations, or social housing, opened my eyes to the inequality and injustice people were facing. And I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t have the tools or the power within that role to really action any change. I had to get to University.

When I rang my mam and told her that I was going to do an Access to Higher Education course, I thought she would be elated. Her reaction was the complete opposite. Looking back, I think she was worried about how I would manage full time work and college, and then worried about how I would survive if I had to drop my hours. Her aversion to getting a degree comes from a lack of experience, I think. She’s paid her bills, put some meals on the table, and brought up a child without one, so I can understand why someone in her position would question the desire to deviate away from this path.

I completed my course, and it felt so warm and comforting to be back in an educational setting. I had a great sense of accomplishment when I started receiving good grades again within my work. It was more than that though, I had a purpose. When looking at universities, I wanted to move away and start afresh. I applied to two courses within Birmingham, a course at Nottingham, a course at Leeds, and one at Sunderland. I attended open days and marketing events within the Sociology and Social Policy departments at all of the establishments. One thing that stood out to me about Sunderland was that the lecturer remembered my name, and said bye to me personally. I knew that personal approach and caring nature was something I had to take advantage of. It was a struggle to get here in the first place, and I was going to need all the support I could get.

In hindsight, it was the best decision I have ever made. I’ve now graduated with a First Class degree, and I am in the middle of completing my Masters. I want to be a lecturer of Sociology at Sunderland University, as I want to give back exactly what I’ve gotten out of it, to someone else who may be in my shoes. I have a new family of aspirational people at university, but I also have a real family full of aspirational people, just in a very different way.


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