Working to widen access: Jayde’s story

Jayde O’Connor is a fourth-year Psychology student at Glasgow Caledonian University. At our parliamentary reception on Tuesday 6 February, Jayde relayed her experience of the challenges she faced getting into university as a result of very difficult family circumstances in her teens. Watch or read a transcript of her inspiring speech:

Hi, I’m Jadye O’Connor and I’m from Glasgow Caledonian and I’m a fourth year student.

I’ve been invited here by Universities Scotland to share my story. I appreciate that all universities are doing their best to widen access but I would like to share my story to ensure that more people like me are able to get an equal opportunity.

Growing up, I was a young carer and my Mum had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I missed a lot of school and the only way that I can describe it to someone who may not know is like a young mother leaving her baby for the first time to return to work. That’s how I felt going to school. I felt like I had to be at home to look after her. And I put school second and fell behind.

My Mother passed away when I was in High School, around about the crucial time that you should start to be taking school seriously. I naturally didn’t do too well in my Standard Grades and the school that I was at, at the time, encouraged me to leave. They didn’t really believe that I had anything to give.

My Dad fought for me and fought my local government to get funding to go to another school. It was at that school that I managed to achieve four Highers and an Advanced Higher.  When I was there, I met a teacher who inspired me, who I have invited along tonight, and she is called Mrs Boyle. She saw my potential and she believed in me.

I feel like she is the only teacher that didn’t make me a pity case. She didn’t make excuses for me and treated me like everyone else. A lot of teachers I found thought, she has a hard life, we are not going to question her about homework, and I never got that from her. I feel like if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have applied to go to university.

So how did I make it? Mostly, I believe it is the relationships that I had with people. People believed in me. You can throw money at people but I feel that is not as effective as a personal relationship that you can get with people. As well as Mrs Boyle, there was a lecturer in my university called Emily Thomson, and she gave up an hour each week of her lunch break to tutor me one-to-one.

It’s not been an easy road, however. A major barrier that I’ve found is through my SAAS application, which is your student funding. Every year I am asked to provide evidence of my mother’s death, which stops my payments coming when they should. That is a major barrier for me. Sometimes I don’t get my first bursary until December time, which means that I kind of have to work more to make money when I should be focusing on uni instead.

At the university as being a care-experienced person, I get help with accommodation and I also get a care experienced bursary and I feel like without these things I wouldn’t have even managed to get this far. I’m now averaging 70% at uni and I‘ve just found out that I have been accepted on to a Masters Programme.

My story comes from a personal point of view but I want to do a lot of research into it. My dissertation is on barriers of looked-after children not accessing higher education. I currently work for Renfrewshire Council and I work in a residential home and I am also a student mentor at Glasgow Caledonian. I like to show them that you can make it and it doesn’t matter where you are from.

I was talking to an individual the other day who is in fifth year and she had no idea that tuition fees were free in Scotland. I explained the process to her and now she is talking about doing a university application. I feel like getting kids from a young age is where we need to go. Encouraging people from a young age is important. University is not just for the elite.

I am an example of this, as well as the many other stories that you are going to hear tonight.

A barrier as well is that there is no clear consensus on how you get to university – some require interviews and some require entrance exams and some are just personal statements. I think that that put me off and I know that might hinder other people because they don’t know what to expect.

I urge everybody to look beyond postcodes. When I was growing up, I was in a homeless shelter which was classed within an affluent area. No-one would know that I was a story that came from an area like that.

Your personal statement doesn’t reflect everything. I feel like you are asked for your entry requirements but that doesn’t say what may have been going on in your life at that time. Why didn’t you get those grades at that time? I feel like I did really well with my Highers but if you were to look at my Standard Grade results, I barely passed. No one asks why. It’s because I was going through bereavement, I was going through homelessness, and poverty.

This is one story you are going to hear. There are a few of us here.  I just want to say thank you for listening.