Angel Fletcher (UK Summer School 2014) – Paving your own path

As an alum of the Sutton Trust’s UK Summer Schools, standing in front of a group of students who would soon be alumni of the Trust really brought me back to my time on the programme at the University of Cambridge in 2014. Walking back into a Sutton Trust programme somehow managed to have a greater impact on me than the 35-degree heat we all got caught in that day. The feeling of hope and readiness for the future was clear in each student I met… and it’s infectious. I related to that feeling of hope not only for my student days, but also as an intern starting as an Editorial Trainee with Penguin Random House this month.

It’s why widening participation is so important. It’s not about guarantees, it’s about insight, information and aspiration and it follows you long past the programme you attend.

I feel lucky that I’ve been able to experience life both as a Sutton Trust UK Summer School student and as a staff member, exploring the mechanisms of our work both on the ground and in our office in the heart of Westminster.

As the Research, Policy and Communications Intern at the Trust, I’ve been fortunate to have worked across almost all teams in the organisation at one point or another. Whether it’s been collecting data for our major research report Elitist Britain 2019, creating social media content, assisting at programmes events, monitoring policy, or liaising with executives, it’s been fantastic to see the extensive amount of work and thought that goes into the whole range of the Trust’s activities.

I never thought in a million years that I’d be back at a Summer School with the opportunity to present on my journey to a bunch of wonderfully talented students at Nottingham. When speaking about my story and giving insight into the exciting benefits that awaited the students on the suttontrustalumnicom, I felt insecure about the value of sharing my journey with others. I guess that was me feeling a little bit of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that I warned students against in my presentation.

When presenting, I wanted to convey the point that our journeys are unpredictable, sometimes scary and often exciting and that no one should be made to feel unworthy of their success. Being real and honest about the challenges is part and package of the parcel too. As our Elitist Britain research shows, the odds are stacked against young people from less advantaged backgrounds. The privately educated continue to dominate the top of many of the leading professions and getting that first step on the career ladder can seem impossible.

However, as someone who has overcome socio-economic and geographic barriers, I’m a firm believer that a mixture of hard work, taking chances and the right opportunities can see you achieve heights you never thought you’d reach. I travelled to London from the North East and back the same day for an interview and it got me a job at the Trust, so taking chances and being (literally) willing to go the extra mile sometimes really does pay off.

Pooja Kumari (UK Summer 2007) – From Durham to London and back again…

Last month I was delighted to return to the Sutton Trust’s Summer School at my alma mater, Durham University. Twelve years ago, I was a 17-year-old participant on the very same programme. I couldn’t help but to reflect on my experiences of the Sutton Trust programme.

If you’re someone who is interested in politics, the summer of 2007 was somewhat memorable. Although by no means comparable to the theatrics of Brexit, I remember it for the resignation of Tony Blair, the Prime Minister who famously chanted “education education education” in setting out his priorities for office. In many ways it felt like the end of era, but for me it was just the beginning. The opportunity to participate on the Summer School at Durham University was nothing short of life changing.

In all honesty, I had my reservations. Earlier in the year my dad took me to a University of Oxford open day, and I left knowing for certain I would not be making an application. My teachers helped me to apply for the UCL Summer School, but I didn’t get a place. The Durham University Summer School felt bittersweet: it was validating to be accepted at a Summer School at such a prestigious university, but for someone like me it felt very much out of reach.

Participating on the programme, I was pleasantly surprised. Living in halls and going to lectures made me feel just like a Durham student. The mentors, all students themselves, were very supportive and encouraging. Suddenly, Durham started to feel accessible. I could really see myself there and enjoying it. I’m grateful that the experience pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me the confidence to apply.

It’s important to add that my experience at university wasn’t plain sailing. Despite its best efforts there was a lack of ‘local’ students at Durham, there were many battles ahead and I wasn’t prepared: the fight to stay true to myself, the politicisation of my accent, the constant imposter syndrome, and my complete lack of awareness of using my time wisely to develop my social capital. No one warned me about this, but I hope that in sharing my experience with the newest members of the Sutton Trust community, I can empower them.

It very much feels like we’re a far cry away from the days of ‘education education education’ and the abundance of widening participation initiatives that I was lucky enough to access, but this makes the work of the Sutton Trust even more important. I’m proud I can play a small role in supporting the Trust in mobilizing the 35,000-strong network of alumni to help other young people, who like us, are navigating a societal system that benefits those from family with connections and high incomes.

Pooja Kumari (UK Summer School 2007) and Joel Mullan (UK Summer School 2005) presenting at Durham University.

Matt Maciejewski (Pathways to Law 2013) – Why I set up LSE’s first ‘Social Mobility Society’

Steph Burrell (UK Summer School 2009) and I arrived at UCL for our presentation slot in front of over a hundred UK Summer School students. Addressing the students, we shared our stories, highlighting the struggles and setbacks that we have faced along the way. I shared how I managed to secure a training contract with one of the Magic Circle firms in the UK, while Steph has undertaken a masters in China and now works for the World Economic Forum. We also expressed to the students how important it is to stay confident, how to recognise their differences as strengths and utilise their resources properly in order to get ahead.

Relaying these lessons through stories of past Sutton Trust students is an important aim of the Alumni Leadership Board, which Steph and I are both members of. This summer we set out to meet with students and deliver the message that the end of their programme does not spell the end of their journey with the Trust – with me and Steph being proof that more can be gained from continued engagement within the community.

The Alumni Leadership Board believes that Sutton Trust students are one of the largest resources that the charity has. We believe that there is a range of lessons, talent, skills, networking opportunities and other benefits that the alumni community can provide, and utilise on a mutually beneficial basis. This fuels our mission to deliver and maintain an open community where students can share their experiences and beyond.

This sense of a community was something which I would have personally benefited from during my time in higher education. I found that I lacked a particular set of benefits which, to this day, have been very difficult to pin down. The community which I saw my more privileged counterparts utilising helped them with choosing the right modules, extra-curricular activities and reading to help maximise their academic or career success. They also enjoyed strategic advice in relation to internships and graduate jobs, and a host of additional opportunities which give you an important sense of belonging within a very new environment.

I set out to tackle this by founding and presiding over the LSE’s first ‘Social Mobility Society’, the aim of which was threefold: to increase awareness of the presence and struggle of underprivileged students, provide a safe community for such students, and be the group responsible for spearheading changes on campus to accommodating our needs. Our activities confirmed that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often felt lost and forgotten, despite having additional financial assistance. We felt like these emotions were borne out of a lack of belonging and community.

Now, a community like this also exists on a larger scale accessible to all Sutton Trust alumni, and I am hopeful that the Alumni Leadership Board’s work will showcase the importance of creating and maintaining this space.