Creating change for ‘care experienced’ university students

Care Experienced Week 2020 is celebrating and connecting Scotland’s care experienced community – but are we including everyone? Sharing her own story, Marie Gibson says not enough is being done support care experienced students in higher education, and this needs to change.

When I was growing up, I thought I wanted to be a social worker. This was mainly due to me thinking that I could do a better job than the professionals I had grown up around. When I was around 24 however, I found out about the Community Education degree at Dundee University and went to meet with one of the lecturers there to find out about it. I still remember sitting in his office surrounded by books that I wanted to read, and hearing about a course from a man who was so passionate about his profession it was contagious. I knew this was where I was supposed to be, but as someone who had struggled with education and getting into work I wanted to go away and get some work experience before applying. I started working with young people, and again, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. A year later I decided to go for it and apply for the course. Having stopped going to school at the age of 13 with no qualifications, I only had some open university credits when I applied. I also didn’t know I could tick the care experienced box at this point in my life. I didn’t get a place on the course.

I could have left it there and not pursued this any further, but I decided to email the lecturer I had went to see and asked if there was any way to appeal this decision. I explained that I had left school when I was 13, that there were reasons I didn’t have the qualifications and that I’d had social work involvement growing up because of this and other reasons. He could have just accepted the decision too and told me to go and get more qualifications and try again but he didn’t. He went to fight my case and I received an email asking for evidence of care experience. I still didn’t know if I was actually care experienced at this point, but I went and found an old report my social worker had written to the children’s reporter, uploaded this and hoped for the best. After that I was given a place on the access summer school where I achieved grades of AAAB and accepted my conditional offer to the community education degree. I wouldn’t be on this course without my lecturer and for that I will be forever grateful. I went on to complete my first and second year with two letters of commendation for my academic performance and I won the Armistead bursary prize in my first year for joint best academic performance within the school of education and social work.

I am halfway through my degree now and I have also started to think of my experiences as care experience after sharing my story with the Independent Care Review and some of my experiences through these blog posts for CYCJ. With the age restrictions being removed for the SAAS care experienced bursary this year too, I shared my experience with them to find out if I was eligible to apply and they have also recognised my experiences as care experience, and I am receiving this financial support.

All of this means so much more than ‘only’ financial support. It helps me feel as if I belong somewhere, validated, listened to, and recognised for the barriers I have faced to get here. I only wish that my experience with the university as a whole has made me feel the same way as a care experienced student. My lecturers and course have been amazing, and I can’t thank them enough for the support I have received throughout my course; however, when it comes to support services or a feeling of belonging or inclusiveness within the wider university, I have not felt that. When I first started university, I received an email stating that I have been recognised as a care experienced student and the university ‘has a legal obligation as a corporate parent to support me’. The language is all off to begin with as I don’t want support as a legal obligation, but it turns out as I had turned 26 that year I wasn’t entitled to this anymore anyway.

Last semester, myself and another care experienced student raised some of these issues with the university and suggested an action plan of improvements that could be made. This included more care experienced representation within the university and student union, named contacts within all of the schools, a peer network, an update of the corporate parenting action plan and policy, and involvement of more care experienced student voices to develop all of this. Apart from one working group meeting, no changes seem to have been made and no follow up after this one meeting. It is so disappointing especially as this week is Care Experienced Week and there has been no recognition of this at the university. I want to highlight that this is not about blame or criticism, but about improving things for care experienced students. It is about creating the changes needed to make us feel as if we belong, so that we can succeed and thrive. I shared my story with the Care Review along with thousands of others, and those voices need to be listened to throughout every area of our society. We shouldn’t have to keep pushing for it. It’s up to Scotland as a whole now to keep the promise.

About our blogger

Marie Gibson is a 28 year old Community Learning and Development student with an interest in sharing her experiences of social work involvement, the mental health and criminal justice systems and in questioning what it is to be care experienced. You can follow her on @mariesvoice_ and www.mariesvoice.com.

 


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