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Community – a lifeline for care experienced and estranged students

  • 25 October 2022
  • By Unite Foundation's Ira Hakim and a group of students and recent graduates who are care experienced and/ or estranged from their families

Over the coming months, HEPI is partnering with the Unite Foundation to provide a platform for a series of blogs on supporting care leavers and estranged students in higher education. The Unite Foundation is a charity offering accommodation scholarships to care leavers and estranged students at universities.

This blog has been co-authored by Unite Foundation’s Ira Hakim and a group of students and recent graduates who are care experienced and/ or estranged from their families. The Unite Foundation and this group of young people – our Sounding Board – have come together to help develop a community for all care experienced and estranged students in the UK.

Dear Reader,

Did you know that many people are often told they’ll never reach higher education? 

As care experienced and estranged students, we hear this message a lot and it often comes with a delightful side course of being told we don’t belong in higher education either.  

When we aim for universities, conservatoires or colleges – and when we make it – we face two major barriers. The first is more widely spoken about and it’s called finances. The second has a far lower profile and goes by the name of ‘belonging’

You see, even if we manage to navigate the student finance system and even if we have some form of financial support from our place of study, imposter syndrome and the deep-rooted feeling that we just don’t belong can tip the scales the wrong way, leading us to not even consider higher education in the first place, or else drop out when we get there.

Why do we feel this way? 

Going to university can be a massive culture shock. It’s a place where taking part in the social stuff everyone else does is unaffordable. It’s a place where other people get money from the bank of mum and dad. It’s a place where services shut over the term holidays and everyone seemingly goes home for Christmas. You try to join in and really make the most of higher education, but it is so hard to swallow that ever-present sinking feeling in your gut that you just don’t fit in.

But this isn’t our doom and gloom story. 

We’ve found that finding a community of people who have experienced similar things to us can be empowering and transformative. 

Students tend to want to find ‘their people’ anyway, and for us – care experienced and estranged students – finding this community can be a lifesaver in terms of making friends and forming a support system, and generally just good for our wellbeing. No, it doesn’t fix everything overnight and it doesn’t pay our bills. But finding like-minded people, especially in an environment like uni which can be quite intimidating and daunting when you first arrive, can completely change our outlooks on university.

One of our group said:

Previously I had thought higher education was quite elitist and not for me; but finding my community at uni has now given me a greater passion and more confidence.

It’s an age-old saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and childhood doesn’t magically end on your 18thbirthday. We continue to grow and transition to adulthood well into our 20s. Community is our village and it’s often a lifeline for us when we’re grappling with massive life changes, such as moving away to university or adjusting to the increased responsibilities of higher education.

It is a foundation for us to lean on, one where we can find solace and comfort, knowing that there are others that are going through, or have been through, the same situations. 

This community all sounds grand but it’s not a reality … yet

Earlier this year, the Unite Foundation asked almost 170 care experienced and estranged about what communities already existed for them. Just under 25 per cent of respondents had come across any support at all in this space. Of those who did know about support groups, many referenced national charities or support from local authorities rather than peer-led spaces for students. 

One of our students reported:

Unfortunately, I do not know of any community, but I certainly think [that establishing such a group] is a good idea. Especially when you first start university as it can be very lonely at times without a family support system.

What can you do?

In your higher education institution there are three key things you can do to support the creation and maintenance of communities for care experienced and estranged students.

  1. Know what’s out there. Too many of our peers don’t know about the support that’s available already. Make sure students know about existing local and national groups, including the This Is Us student-led community
  2. Listen to us. If you run events or meet-ups for students like us, involve us by asking us about the issues we face and what we’d like community to look like. Our ideas research might help you here.
  3. Support us. Support students like us to set up and maintain societies or groups in your institution if nothing yet exists.

The This Is Us student-led community is a safe online space, created by the Unite Foundation and overseen by our Sounding Board, for estranged and care experienced higher education students (and recent graduates) in the UK to connect, share info, arrange meet-ups and more! It’s free, national, and open to all ages and years of study. We encourage fellow care experienced and estranged students and grads to join us!

This week, 24 – 28 October, is National Care Leavers Week. How is your institution supporting care leavers? Join the conversation on Twitter by following #NCLW2022.

Explore our series with the Unite Foundation:

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