Published on 12 January 2021
Neither Stephanie Grieve nor Jade Jackson have ever spoken publicly about their experiences, but thanks to encouragement from the University’s award-winning We Care initiative, which nurtures, develops and supports estranged students through their university life, the pair finally found the confidence to talk openly about their experiences at the Stand Alone Conference.
Stand Alone supports adults who are estranged from their family or key family members. The conference, which moved online, featured talks from experts, researchers and leaders in the field of estrangement, as well as university students impacted by family breakdowns.
Since taking the bold step to study a degree, both Stephanie, 25, and Jade, 19, with the support of Sunderland’s We Care team, have found care, counselling, a roof over their heads and friends, as well as benefitting from the University’s We Care Scholarship of £2,000 a year, and one-to-one support.
Wendy Price, Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University and leads the We Care team, said: “Since signing the Stand Alone Pledge in 2017, we have worked very closely with the team at Stand Alone to develop our support for estranged students. I’m delighted Stephanie and Jade were able to attend the conference earlier this month to share their experiences of being estranged students during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They both spoke so eloquently about how universities can ensure the right support is in place for estranged students and how crucial it is to offer this. I’m so proud of them both and very grateful to them for taking the time to represent the University at this conference.”
Stephanie, from Roker, who is in the second year of her BA (Hons) Childhood Studies degree, said: “I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to speak on behalf of estranged students and help inform further support to be introduced. I was incredibly nervous beforehand, but I finally found my voice. To have recognition as a person in need and speaking on behalf of people in need, I felt a wave of empowerment. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Lindey Cookson, Principal Lecturer and Team Leader for Childhood Studies, said: “I am incredibly proud of Stephanie for embracing the opportunity to speak at the conference. I was delighted when Stephanie told me the subjects she has studied during our course have helped her to articulate her own experiences and develop her confidence to speak in such a public arena. Stephanie intends to continue to share her experiences, helping others in similar circumstances to also realise their ambitions to study at the University of Sunderland.”
Jade, originally from Recar and Cleveland, but now living in Sunderland, is in the first year of a BA (Hons) Photography, Video and Digital Imaging degree.
She said: “I agreed to speak at the conference as I wanted to bring more awareness and help for others who found themselves in a similar situation to myself. It’s the first time I have ever done anything like this, and it went very well. Before university I wouldn't have spoken about my situation because I was embarrassed.”
Susan Mueller, Higher Education Director from Stand Alone, said: “It was invaluable having these two students share their experiences at our conference. Hearing directly from Jade about starting university this year and Stephanie from the perspective of a mature student, gave delegates from many different HEIs a real insight into the challenges estranged students have been dealing with during the Covid 19 pandemic this year and informed the discussions throughout the day on how to provide effective, personalised support for estranged students at different stages of the student journey.”
The University’s We Care initiative was recently awarded a Stand Alone Pledge Award 2020. This is in recognition of the University’s overall institutional support for estranged students, as well as the personal commitment of individual staff members and teams.
The honour was announced just weeks after the We Care programme picked up the Widening Access Initiative (Retention and Progression) Award at the NEON Awards, an event which celebrates the transformative power that higher education can have.
In November, the University launched the We Care at Christmas appeal to support care-experienced and estranged students at its Sunderland and London campuses with the aim of raising £2,000. That figure was surpassed, and the total raised now stands at £10,310. Staff and student volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure that over 160 care experienced, and estranged students and their families had a Christmas they will never forget.
Stephanie, 25, became estranged from her family in Northumberland nine years ago.
But determined to support herself, she headed to Newcastle and worked full time in various jobs, most recently as a model booker for an agency, whilst part time modelling herself.
However, she had a burning ambition to work with children and improve their lives, but always thought university was out of reach, both academically and financially.
With encouragement from her partner, she attended an Open Day at the University of Sunderland, and the Childhood Studies programme ticked all the boxes and gave her hope of a future career in education.
She said: “The support through the We Care Team and the scholarship were a major factor in coming to Sunderland. They provided this big level of support, otherwise I would not have been able to come without it.
“Sunderland has given me a chance to succeed and so far, I am absolutely loving it. I wake up thinking about the course, excited about the day.”
Asked what advice she would give to other students who find themselves in similar circumstances: “Whether you think you need it or not, get support where you can, seek it out,” she says. Sunderland provides for every kind of student; you will be amazed at how much it improves your student experience. It’s also vital to stay connected with people and don’t be scared to ask for help.”
Living in student accommodation with a room to call her own and new friends for comfort, Jade finally feels a sense independence and safety, after several years of estrangement.
Jade’s relationship broke down with her family as she was about to begin her GCSEs. She admits living below the poverty line left her feeling a sense of embarrassment and she always kept herself to herself.
But all that changed when she began her film studies and photography course at college, encouraged by lecturers to go on to university, the first in her family to do so.
She’s now in the first year of her Photography, Video and Digital Imaging degree, and is enjoying every minute and embracing all the opportunities that have come her way – including becoming a class representative.
“The University has given me a fresh start in life.” she says. “The We Care team has provided me with lots of support – making friends and boosting my confidence.”
She added: “The course is going brilliantly; I made the right choice. I had offers at five other universities, but Sunderland was the only one that offered support for estranged students, including accommodation, as I was homeless.”
Jade hopes to pursue a career in documentary photography and would like to own her own studio in the future.