For many young people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a university education can seem like an unreachable dream – or simply be so outside their frame of reference as to appear unobtainable to them. At Newcastle University, we’re aiming to change that perception by helping secondary school and sixth form students to understand the accessibility of university and igniting their imaginations about the advantages it can give them.
“The Graduate Ambassador (GA) scheme has been going for 12 years,” explains Sarah Cowey, Student Recruitment Manager. “It started off small with two ambassadors and has now grown to 13. We target more than 900 schools all over England and into Northern Ireland by bringing Newcastle University into their world.”
Schools are targeted in areas where students might have potential, but because of their social background may be less likely to reach that potential or go on to higher education.
“It’s as much about encouraging further education generally as encouraging them to go to Newcastle. Our goal is to make sure young people realise that opportunities are available for everybody – so that they feel university could be for them whoever they are.” Sarah says.
Sasha Quigg, who spent a year working as a GA, comes from just such a background. “I grew up in Bolton, in not the nicest of areas, and went to a very mainstream, run-of-the-mill secondary school. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship for an independent sixth form, because of my family circumstances and high achievement, and they encouraged me to look at universities further afield, and that’s how I found myself at Newcastle.”
Sasha studied biomedical sciences, and towards the end of her degree her thoughts turned towards what her next steps would be. “I saw the graduate recruitment role advertised in the medical school where my course was based and I looked into it and decided to give it a shot.” she says.
Window of opportunity
A university education wasn’t even on the radar for Sam Mead until he attended a summer school run by GAs on campus. “For me and my peers at school, what the GAs did was really useful,” he says. “I never knew much about university and because no one in my family is university-educated I had never really considered it. So I feel like without the GA scheme I might not have ended up going to university at all.”
After studying chemistry, biology and Italian at A-Level, Sam went to Newcastle University in 2015, supported by the PARTNERS programme, a supported entry route for students from certain backgrounds. After graduating with a degree in Pharmacology, he applied to become a GA himself.
“The GAs go through a rigorous recruitment process,” Sarah says. “We ask that they have completed their degree at the University in the past couple of years, so the experience is still fresh and relevant. We’re trying to encourage male and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethic] applicants to ensure a diverse group. They then have to do a job application for the role, and they are then shortlisted and go through the interview process, which includes a presentation and written test. We’re looking for people who will be able to deliver effective presentations in schools so they must be confident and enthusiastic.”
We target more than 900 schools all over England and into Northern Ireland.
Presenting to groups in schools was a daunting prospect at first for Sasha, but she grew to love her job as a GA. “As a first full-time job out of uni, it’s a fantastic experience,” she says. “To be honest, I didn’t even feel like it was work, I loved the job so much! I’ve moved on to a different role now, but I’m based in the same office as the new intake of GAs and I always say to them, ‘You couldn’t be luckier than to come out of uni and do this job.’ It’s led me to my current role in an area I’m passionate about: fair access to education.”
As Sam looks forward to his first trip, to present to pupils at a school in Belfast, what is he hoping to gain from his year as a GA? “I’ve never been to Northern Ireland before so it’s going to be great to get out and travel, meet lots of new prospective students and see the world as they see it. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping that if I can just inspire one person, and see that lightbulb moment, it will have been a success. I want to help people who wouldn’t normally have expected to be able to get into university, like me.” he says.
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