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“Cheerleader” for disadvantaged Sunderland students awarded OBE

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Published on 01 June 2022

Wendy Price OBE
Wendy Price OBE

For Sunderland students with no family home to go to and no parents to rely on, talk to or ask for emotional or financial support – there is one person they can always turn to. 

For more than 20 years, Wendy Price, Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University of Sunderland, has worked tirelessly in encouraging and supporting disadvantaged students through university.

Wendy’s extraordinary efforts have now been acknowledged with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) award in the Queen’s Birthday 2022 Honours List ‘for services to Higher Education’.

Wendy was born in Gateshead and attended Biddick Comprehensive School (now Biddick Academy) in Washington and studied for her A-levels at Sunderland College.

Despite not knowing a great deal about how to access university – and with no one in her family ever having gone to university – Wendy decided to take the plunge and study a business degree and a post-graduate diploma in management at Northumbria.

Shortly after graduating, Wendy took on the role of PA to the Deputy Chief Executive at Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council. Within one year, she was made Training Coordinator, recruiting and training apprentices to work with local employers.

After two years, Wendy headed to London where she worked as Administration Manager for Toni & Guy’s International Academy, providing courses for hairdressers from around the world. 

Three years later, feeling homesick for her native north-east, Wendy returned to Wearside and in 2000 joined the University of Sunderland as a Recruitment Officer. 

It was during this role she realised her passion for supporting care experienced students and within three years, became Widening Participation Manager, working on externally funded projects to encourage under-represented groups to access university. 

Wendy’s parents have fostered more than 40 children, so she was able to see first-hand some of the barriers and challenges they faced in accessing education. This experience made Wendy determined to improve the opportunities available for care experienced young people to access higher education.

In 2016, Wendy, with the help of colleagues, spearheaded the University’s award-winning We Care programme, which nurtures, develops and supports care experienced and estranged students through their university life. 

“As a university, we have a really important role to not only ensure a culture where all students are accepted but where they are celebrated,” Wendy said.

“The We Care programme is not just about providing support, but providing that community as well. We know our students individually, we send them birthday cards, have regular check-in meetings with them and we had a coffee catch-up on Christmas Day because we knew some of them would be on their own.

“Graduations are such an important part of the student journey but some of our students might not have family members or guests to invite, so we attend every single graduation ceremony if they want us to. When you see a student graduate, it’s the end of one journey but the start of an exciting new chapter and just to know I’ve played a part in that is such a privilege.

“For me, it’s that personal connection that makes what we’re doing as a university unique and different.”

Wendy, who also studied an MBA at Sunderland’s Business School in 2007, added: “Sometimes students ask me, “so what do you do?” and I say, “I’m your cheerleader” – I’m here every step of the way to make sure you’re supported. Whatever you need to succeed at university, I’ll do my best to provide it.”

As well as heading up the We Care team, Wendy is North East Regional Representative for the charity National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) and a member of their National Strategy Group. 

She is also Chair of the Board of Governors at Sunderland Virtual School, which provides personalised learning support to ensure that care experienced young people receive the best education and learning experiences to maximise their education outcomes.

On being awarded an OBE, Wendy said: “It is an honour I could only dream about – just to be honoured for doing something I genuinely love and that I’m passionate about is amazing.

“The honour might be recognising the work that I’ve done but my contribution has only been made possible because of the wonderful colleagues I have and the fantastic external partners we work with; the supportive managers at the University, who have been passionate enough to want to make changes and to be at the forefront of this, and of course, the students, who inspire me every single day. They are the most talented, resilient, motivated and ambitious people I’ve ever met.” 

Wendy added: “Students are at the heart of everything we do across the University and particularly in our team, and it is seeing the transformative impact this has on their lives that just makes it all worthwhile.” 

Wendy’s expertise has been sought by a number of organisations, including the Royal Television Society, which runs a successful bursary scheme to support media students from challenged backgrounds. 

Bursary manager at the Royal Television Society, Anne Dawson, said: “Wendy’s advice and insights have been invaluable to our own work dealing with young people from very challenging backgrounds.

“This work is not glamorous. People like Wendy do this from altruistic motives because helping another human being going through the trials of growing up without the support of a family is something they feel passionate about.”

Graeme Thompson MBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said: “I am so pleased that Wendy’s work has been recognised. Her commitment to encouraging and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds through university has brought Sunderland national acclaim for widening opportunity in higher education. 

“She invests time to understand the barriers facing particular groups of prospective and current students and works with them in order to develop creative solutions and a very personalised approach. Our students and our teams are lucky she’s here.”

Wendy now lives in Washington with her husband Nathan and their two sons.