Class of 2018: Overcoming your past – and improving the lives of others

Liam Smith

Published on 09 July 2018

Liam Smith, 22, graduated from BA Social Work at the University of Sunderland this week – but Liam, who has a CV that would be the envy of someone twice his age – has already landed a role as a social worker, what he calls his “dream job”.

But it has been far from an easy road for Liam, he openly admits that his behaviour was “awful”, and at a young age he was branded unsuitable for fostering due to this and other factors.

“I was looked after for the majority of my life,” says Liam, from Sunderland. “I was in and out of children’s homes, I didn’t go to school and didn’t get any qualifications. I was deemed ineligible for fostering when I was thirteen, a family home just wasn’t the best environment for me. To my grandparents’ credit, they continued to support me when I was looked after, even though it wasn’t possible for me to live with them.”

It was likely that this spiral of self-destructive behaviour would have continued for Liam, until the intervention of a no-nonsense social worker made him rethink his attitude to life – and set 15 year-old Liam on a different path.

“When I was fifteen I had a chip on my shoulder, and a massive attitude, and, I thought that I was never going to achieve anything – and my social worker told me to stop feeling sorry for myself.

”She was the first person who made me think about what I wanted to do with my life. It was then I realised that I wanted to become a social worker. I wanted to do for other kids what she had done for me. She was motivational, a role model, she was inspirational – and that’s what I wanted to be.”

Liam studied his GCSE, but struggled with A-Levels. He switched to a two year Health and Social Care access course – and landed a place at the University of Sunderland.

“I have never wanted to rely on my personal background to help me get on in a career in social work. Before I came to university I worked with the elderly, in palliative care, and helped mentor kids who are in trouble with the police. I had a massive range of experience in volunteering and work, because I think if you want to be a social worker you really need to understand how different people’s lives function.”

Despite Liam’s drive he admits he occasionally struggled, particularly in his early days at university. The support that the University of Sunderland offers to care leavers had a huge positive impact on his studies. Sunderland offers guaranteed accommodation throughout the year, a unique Care Leavers’ Scholarship and the opportunity to liaise with support workers.   

 “I’ve been supported really well by the University. The course itself is really good, really thorough. Sometimes, to be honest, I have struggled, because I think as someone who has experienced the care system I often have a very different perspective from that of those who have taught me.

“But the lecturers have been absolutely fantastic. If I’ve needed any support they’ve been there for me 100 per cent, and the experiences I’ve got out of studying at Sunderland have been amazing.”

Last year Liam travelled to Peru to work for a charity, one of only two students from the UK chosen to go. He worked in the poverty-stricken community of El Porvenir, a city the size of Liverpool, served by only four social workers. He taught English, and helped out with economic development programmes.

“We would give the people loans, help them set up businesses, and allow them to be the agents of change with their lives,” says Liam. “Rather than doing things for them, we empowered them and supported them.”

But severe weather and illness made the placement in Peru far from straightforward.

“While I was there the entire city flooded, and the area was just decimated. My role changed, I was helping out with water trucks and delivering food, and helping rebuild homes. It was absolutely amazing.

“When the flooding occurred we had no electricity, no water and no WiFi – and we were, like – no WiFi!  What do we do?”

Liam was forced to further extend his stay when he developed appendicitis – but typically, he turned that setback into a positive opportunity.

“After I’d recovered I got the chance to do some travelling. I went to Machu Picchu and Chile, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”

After those life-changing events Liam admits to struggling to adjust to the “first world problems” as life as a student in Sunderland.

“Fortunately I started my placement in Sunderland children’s services Child Protection team soon after coming back, and I was thrown in at the deep end. It was one of the most fabulous experiences I’ve ever had.

“It really enforced to me that social work is what I want to do. I really started to see the positive impact that my work can have, especially in an area with issues around domestic violence, substance misuse and poverty.

“But I’ve loved it, and as a result of my placement I’ve got a job at the same organisation as a social worker – at a pretty good salary, which is obviously a bonus!

Now, with international volunteering in his CV, Liam’s long-term aim is to move to Australia, and his hope is to work for an organisation like the UN, doing international social work.

 “I’m a firm believer that I am what I am not because of my background, but despite my background. A lot of looked after children will say, I’ve got no parents, or this is my background and that’s the reason for my behaviour, but I totally disagree with that. I believe that if you want to do something in life you put your mind to it and you do it.

“I’ve discovered that you will get the support you need.”

Wendy Price, Access to Higher Education and Scholarships Manager at the University of Sunderland, heads up the Care Leaver Student Support Team and has worked closely with Liam. She says: “Ensuring that students who are underrepresented in higher education have fair access to university is one of the university’s strategic objectives. We have a deep rooted commitment to supporting care experienced students to help them not only access university, but achieve their full potential during their time with us.”

The team meet with each of the University’s care experienced students to produce a bespoke support plan. This is based on the student’s individual needs and can include help with finding accommodation 52 weeks a year, wellbeing support, additional financial support and finding part time work. One of the things that our students value most is always having someone looking out for them on campus, whether this is to help with academic support or just for a coffee and a chat.

Wendy added: “We are extremely proud of Liam and the huge amount he’s achieved during his three years at university. His story is evidence that if you have a goal, some determination and support along the way, there is nothing to stop you from changing your life and achieving your dreams.”