I was born in China but adopted by my parents aged 18 months. Both my parents are Irish, and we grew up in Surrey. My three younger siblings were all adopted from different parts of China. Our family is pretty unique in that respect.
Growing up I was always seemingly academic. I was in top sets for everything, appointed Deputy Head Girl in lower sixth and generally fit the profile of someone who would go on to university. However at AS level I ended up getting way below the grades I was predicted – three D grades and a U, and below the requirements for studying Law at university or getting offers from any respected universities.
Everyone around me went into crisis mode. Not just my parents, but teachers, my friends and family friends. Suddenly my well thought out plans of going to university and studying Law had fallen apart. A backup plan was required urgently, however I didn’t have one as I didn’t anticipate not achieving my predicted grades.
In the end I reluctantly enrolled as a day boarder at a state boarding school to re-do my A-levels, but it was a tough decision – if I’d stayed at my old school for my final year I would have had to give up my status as Deputy Head Girl. Leaving behind my friends was very difficult. Plus, it was tricky to find a school that would take me on the back of my grades as I was considered a ‘risk’ to them in terms of what I might achieve in the future academically.
Moving schools was a huge shock. I ended up doing 13-hour days and Saturday school, I was expected to transfer effortlessly, and teachers assumed I knew everything already. Initially it felt very isolating.
Before I received my AS level grades, I had been taking part on the Sutton Trust Pathways to Law programme. It was an amazing opportunity to experience what being a lawyer was really like. In particular, the work experience opened my eyes to the working world and the rewards you get from hard graft.
The experience taught me that I preferred learning on the job and that I wanted to work, instead of going to university to just study. When I transferred to my new school, I asked my Head of Year about the alternative options to university. A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought of doing an apprenticeship and this option would have been completely off the cards, however this time I received support and encouragement – from my parents and my teachers.
I am currently half way through the Civil Service Fast Track Apprenticeship, where I am on a Level 4 Business Admin apprenticeship working in the Government Equalities Office. It’s a two-year programme where I will finish with an NVQ and Diploma. There are opportunities post my apprenticeship to complete a part-time degree whilst working, so it has kept my options open regarding going to university at a time that will suit me.
I am loving my apprenticeship. My most memorable experiences to date have been working with the previous Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening on a skills summit promoting apprenticeships, visiting No 10 and meeting Helen Pankhurst, working on LGBT policy and being part of the policy launch event, being part of the gender pay gap reporting, and organising and leading a Youth Consultancy Forum. Right now I am a PA to two deputy directors, but who knows what I will be doing next.
The main barriers I have faced are other people’s attitudes. There was a huge stigma when I decided to apply for an apprenticeship. Family friends would say, “just because your parents didn’t go to university doesn’t mean you have to miss out”. But a degree isn’t the only sign of success. Apprenticeships aren’t for ‘less intelligent people’ who didn’t go to university. They are just as hard, if not more challenging, and it is this preconception that we need to address.
Also, taking the apprenticeship route means I don`t have a natural cohort of friends like I would have experienced at university. I find I have to work a lot harder to create my friendship groups and establish a social life outside of work. This is especially true in the absence of my local friends who are away at university for much of the year.
I don’t believe in having my life mapped out. There’s no need to put that pressure on yourself! But at one point I would like to work on policy around children in care and family law. The implications of being in care are huge in relation to social mobility. Children in care don’t get given as many opportunities and options for their future, and even if they are, they often don’t believe they really can achieve the same things as their peers.
In a roundabout way, I have come full circle. From my experience of adoption, to my interest in Law, to the Pathways programme, and now to here.
Don’t obsess over your exam results – they are not the be all and end all. There are so many options out there, but if you let your results define who you are then you might close the door to so many opportunities. If I had let my AS level results define me, then I would have given up early. Look at the bigger picture – it is often a lot brighter than you think! As Robert Frost says, I feel like I am ‘taking the road least travelled’.