Like many other universities across the country, Durham has dealt and is still dealing with disparities in representation. The common culprits can be found in the gender, schooling, ethnic background, and local/regional representation in successive student cohorts.
My background is one that’s unconventional. Having moved to the North East around ten years ago from the other side of the world in the Philippines, I’ve always been used to adapting to unfamiliar situations – coping with a new culture, navigating social etiquettes or even learning the language. Starting university coming from a state school coupled with a lack of familial experience in the British education system was quite a daunting experience.
Realising your potential
While I had the drive for learning and seeking higher education, I felt underprepared and unaware of the many nuances and traditions of academia. I was lucky enough to be encouraged by my school’s deputy head of Sixth Form to recognise my potential, be aware of my background and seek scholarships which aim to facilitate the gaps in representation specific to Durham University. I managed to secure the ‘St Nicholas Scholarship’ which provides financial support aimed at northern students who come from underrepresented and/or underprivileged backgrounds. My application to Durham was successful, and I was eager to start a new and different phase in my education.
In recent years there have been crucial lifelines, scholarships and outreach opportunities in the form of programs such as the ‘Sutton Trust Initiative’ or ‘Supported Progression’, which have tackled the issue from a numerical standpoint, allowing more underrepresented students to ascend the academic ladder. It is incumbent upon those at top of the university to address these disparities, and SP for example has bolstered our North-East intake, amid successive student cohorts that have been historically underrepresenting the region.
A new initiative ‘Levelling Up: Aspiring Higher’ seeks to further remedy the regional representation gap. This is a new, unprecedented scheme which will see top academics who deliver our lectures and lead our departments intervening in helping northern students through 1-to-1 mentorship. University can be a daunting experience, especially for those who are unfamiliar with academia and yet have just as much potential as their more prepared peers. As a current beneficiary of one of DU’s programs it is heartening to see new programs being started to give that ‘extra hand up’ for those who are on the cusp of accessing prestigious institutions like ours, but have been bound by circumstances that have held them back.
A sense of belonging
But it’s not just about changing the makeup of our student body. It is about changing our culture, our preconceptions, and the values we prioritise; a learning of the structures that brought about this situation in the first place. We have seen alarming articles recently containing allegations and experiences of students whose time here has been dampened by discrimination. This scheme is not just a conventional pathway to Durham but has a new element derived from academic mentorship, to make sure prospective students will feel that they belong here, that their place at Durham is no more different than their peers’ but rather they are also induced a level playing field on preparedness.
Had I had access to an opportunity like this, I without a doubt would have felt more comfortable and familiar sooner, like I do now. I would advise other North-East students to seek out every opportunity, especially the ones which are obscure do not seem visible straight away and the university’s scholarships database is a good start! The university executive has a chance to shape the trajectory towards the right direction. This is a very promising step towards that.