New Longford Scholar, Class of 2018 reflects on the leap from prison to university.
From disclosure to unexpected furniture funds, read Saskia’s account….
Going to prison in my mid-twenties was a game-changer. Whilst it would have been easy to spend my entire sentence hiding under my blanket in despair, I knew if I wanted any chance of a normal life I had to make some big changes. You can’t do that if you choose to wallow in self-pity.
So, first things first, I wrote down everything I wanted to achieve in life: successful career, fancy car, big house (hopefully) etc. Then the things that might get in the way of all that: family dramas, a degree, finances. I was able to work out a solution to the first problem, but my goal of returning to education presented a different challenge. I have to be honest, knowing I’d have to declare my criminal record put me off to begin with.
The disclosure decision….
Just a few days before Christmas day in 2017 I was released. I had just over three weeks to select both a course and the universities I’d apply to before the mid-January deadline. With no time to waste I had to decide how I would broach the matter of my conviction. Confused? I know UCAS (the organisation which oversees all university applications) have since changed the rules on disclosure, so that from applicants from 2019 onwards no longer need to declare their convictions. But back when I applied, the ‘box’ was still in force. Plus, I know the Longford Trust still requires potential scholars to declare their conviction in the interests of transparency.
So I decided to get creative, and used my personal statement as an opportunity to explain how my prison experiences had motivated me to turn my life around. Although I didn’t elaborate on what my conviction was, I did mention the courses and activities I undertook whilst I was in custody. It worked. Despite the fact that I didn’t supply a reference, I got accepted into my first-choice without an interview.
Student first not former prisoner….
Before being made an unconditional offer, I was contacted by my course department who asked for a reference from my probation officer. Most universities do this as part of their safeguarding measures, regardless of the type of conviction. While this extra level of scrutiny can feel a bit uncomfortable, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation is not to worry. Universities are keen to get students from all walks of life (yes even ex-prisoners) and I would say as long as you engage with probation never allow the fear of disclosing from stopping you pursue your dreams, otherwise you’ll be running your whole life. And of course, anything you share with the university is kept confidential, so your personal tutors and lecturers are never made aware of your personal circumstances. Which I find to be a good thing as I’d like to be seen as student first rather than as a former prisoner.
Where could I find the money? …..
With the benefit of hindsight, the easiest part in this whole process was getting in. Once reality hit, I questioned how I could afford it all. I had previously studied a few years ago. That did not result in a degree as I withdrew in my final year, so unfortunately, I was not entitled to a tuition fee loan. This meant I had to come up with £9,250 each year for the next three years. No easy task, only a few months after release. In addition, at the time I was living in emergency accommodation and knew that very shortly I’d be made a permanent offer of housing. Very shortly I’d have to factor in the cost of furnishing my new home as well as managing everyday expenses of food and bills and study materials.
Cue the Longford Trust….
I’d become aware of the Longford Trust during my time in prison after reading the Hardman Directory and did not delay in applying. I knew even if my application was successful, I’d still have to make up the massive shortfall. My first step was researching other educational charities, and I’d recommend reading the Directory of Social Change that contains a list of grants for individuals, available in most libraries. I was able to secure a few grants to assist with the costs of a laptop and books. The Hardman Directory also contains a list of grants for ex-offenders that I also had some success with.
More from universities than you might think….
It’s easy to overlook what the university itself can offer in terms of financial help too. It takes time and digging around. It’s worth doing your homework. My university’s scholarship page was a good source of help. Nearly all universities have a Student Hardship fund for those who experience extra financial difficulties. You can only apply for these additional funds after enrolment and, without doubt, I recommend exploring this avenue. It’s also always worth checking with your university’s Widening Participation department to see if they make discretionary grants. When I finally moved into my new home in the middle of the semester I was given an additional grant – not advertised on the website- that allowed me to purchase the essentials, such as fridge, cooker and bed. How I could I study if I didn’t have anything to sleep on?
So, looking at my own experience, I recommend finding out how much support each university offers to incoming students and use that as a key factor to decide which university to apply for in the first place, and certainly if you’re in the happy position of needing to decide which offer to accept.
How’s it all going now? ….
Here I am a fully-fledged student at a well-respected university, five months into my degree and I couldn’t have made a better choice. I’ve got a few internships lined up for the summer, and feel confident that when I graduate two years down the line that I’ll be able to get the job I want. It’s entirely up to you but in terms of obtaining part-time work while you study, again your university might have more to offer then you expect. If you wish to share your situation with the Widening Participation department there may be jobs on campus that they earmark for you. At the moment I temp through my university. Unlike most employers they don’t require applicants to disclose for most posts. Not only is the additional income helping with my living costs, it’s a good way to build up your CV and network with staff across different departments.
One last piece of advice…
My last piece of advice to anyone about to embark on this exciting journey is to plan early. If you need a lot of financial support, remember that a lot of grant-making charities have strict deadlines, so you can’t afford to leave things until the last minute. Be focused. It’s tempting to go to university and get excited about the pub crawls but nearly all graduate employers want to see evidence of high grades and work experience. You can’t afford to leave this until your second year. Be realistic about the challenges you’ll face and find ways to overcome them.
On a final – and perhaps a little contradictory – note, remember to enjoy yourself! Life will change so much over the next 3-4 years and you’ll surprise yourself how much you’ll end up achieving.
You can find out more about Longford scholarships and Frank awards here.