Against all odds: how going to university changed my life
I’m obsessed with education and the affect it can have on people. Whatever education you have, no one can ever take it away from you.
Annaleigh is the Acting Education Manager for Middlesborough Football Club Foundation. She works with young, disadvantaged students to help them break down the barriers that stand in the way of their learning.
Annaleigh talks passionately about education and the power it has to change lives, and she speaks from experience. She grew up in an area where, she explains, the “school drop-out rate was high, there were high levels of crime and a lot of adversity.” None of her family completed their GCSEs and university was never on her radar – “not even in a ‘reach for the stars’ kind of way,” she says, “but it changed my life.”
“Something like a laptop and internet access can take a child from average to outstanding”
Growing up in a disadvantaged area was challenging and impacted on Annaleigh’s attendance at school: “When you live in an area that’s high in crime, it is distracting. Education and employability isn’t always a focal point. It’s chaos – there’s always some fire, and things like crime, anti-social behaviour, blue lights and police helicopters are the norm.”
There were also financial restraints which meant that access to basic resources was a constant pressure – she qualified for Pupil Premium, was part of the Gifted and Talented programme, and attended the school’s ‘Get up and Go’ programme which provided free breakfast and enrichment opportunities.
In secondary school, Annaleigh was given a free school laptop and internet access which, she says, “was possibly one of the greatest resources” for her, and something that people usually take for granted. “I’ve never been shy of hard work,” she says, “but something like a laptop and internet access can take a child from average to outstanding in the work that they produce.”
“Education was a positive coping mechanism for me”
Despite the challenges, Annaleigh found that she thrived at school and education became “a positive coping mechanism” for her. She always had ambitions to go to college, but it was expected that she would get a full-time job after that – paying university tuition fees just wasn’t an option.
It was while she was at college studying towards her BTEC national diploma in Sport and Exercise Science, that Annaleigh was encouraged to apply for university. Annaleigh was achieving good grades but says she just applied because she was told to: “It was more of a life-skills exercise”. It wasn’t until results day arrived, and she found out that she’d been accepted, that university became real possibility.
She was apprehensive, but told herself that “if you’re that nervous it must be something worth doing,” so she accepted a place to study Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity at Durham University. She qualified for the highest level of financial support, without which she simply wouldn’t have been able to go, but said “it was never about chasing an academic dream.” For her, “it was an escape route.”
“I was made to feel on the bottom of the food chain, but I’m stubborn”
The transition from council estate to university wasn’t easy and Annaleigh describes her first year as a “slushy” period. Not only did she have to deal with the usual pressures that face every student going to university for the first time, she also had to deal with the increasingly apparent socio-economic gulf between her and her new peers: “I was surrounded by people who had a lot more financial security than I did. I was comparing myself to all of these people and wondering what I could have been if I’d had what they had."
“I was made to feel on the bottom of the food chain,” she says, “but I’m stubborn and I thought, ‘I’m going to work my way to the top and pass you all on the way up there!’”
“I realised that education has the power to make you significant”
It was during her second year that, with the help of her professors, Annaleigh had what she calls a “psychological transformation” that rocketed her self-esteem. She realised that growing up around adversity had given her a different but no less valuable, skillset than her peers: she was elite in her own way. “I had gratitude,” she explains, “I was streetwise. I had unequivocal bravery, determination and grit. I was resilient. They couldn’t match my relationship with reality.”
Once Annaleigh changed the way that she looked at herself and her background, there was no stopping her: “I became more comfortable with the world, who I was and what I was there to do. I realised that education has the power to make you significant.”
In her third year, Annaleigh was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome: “It was frustrating because I had this desire inside to do things and I dreamed of being this highly functioning, intelligent and successful person, and my body and my mind just would not let me do it.”
She had to step down from her role as Captain of the university netball team but, against the odds, she completed her course and graduated in June 2015. “It was,” she says, “arguably one of the greatest days of my life, and the sacrifices and fight I had put up to get there made it all the more satisfying.”
“If you’re big enough and brave enough to think about it, why not apply?”
In her work at the football club, Annaleigh empowers her students by sharing what her life experiences have taught her so far. She teaches them that, “The bigger you become, the smaller your disadvantages become. You outgrow them with strength.”
“I can’t take away their disadvantage,” she explains, “but I can help them accept it and turn it into something stronger.”
Now studying part-time towards her PGCE, Annaleigh is passionate about sharing the message that a university education is accessible to everyone, no matter where they’re from. She tells her students that, “If you’re thinking about university, that’s enough. If you’re big enough and brave enough to think about it, why not apply?”
“You hear so many times that ‘education’s not for everyone’,” says Annaleigh, “but it actually is. Education is a right, not a privilege. Everyone has the right to be in the college, in that uni.”