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“To see that representation of children in care meant so much”

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Published on 25 November 2022

University of Sunderland’s ‘We Care’ team; Safeenah Hussian Wendy Price, Lauren Boffey and Jess Faith
University of Sunderland’s ‘We Care’ team; Safeenah Hussian Wendy Price, Lauren Boffey and Jess Faith

The heartwarming John Lewis Christmas advert’s message this year highlighting life for children in care is reflected in the award-winning support the University of Sunderland offers its students – and winning the backing of one student who has experienced the care system first-hand.

Sunderland has a deep-rooted history of supporting under-represented students to access and achieve their full potential within higher education.

In 2016, a unique framework was introduced to support some of the University’s most vulnerable students, those who are care-experienced or estranged from their parents or carers, with help from bursaries to accommodation.

As a result of this approach, the We Care’ team’s work has achieved national acclaim, picking up a range of awards and accolades, including just this week; winning the ‘Emotional Wellbeing Support’ provided to estranged students in the Stand Alone Pledge Awards 2022*.

In the past academic year alone, 86 care-experienced students have been supported by the team, and 15 care-experienced students graduated from their courses in the summer.

The importance of fostering, kindness and human connection - reinforced in this year’s John Lewis advert - comes at a critical time for the We Care team, as they launch their annual Christmas appeal, raising funds to support care-experienced and estranged students at our Sunderland and London campuses.

For many of these students Christmas is a time they will spend alone, perhaps without a card, gift, festive meal or companionship. For those students with children, it is a particularly difficult time with the current cost of living crisis which will make it even more difficult to make Christmas special for these families. A donation will provide a gift, festive foods and warm clothing to see them through the festive period.

Zara Clench, 21, from Devon, who is in the second year of a Health & Social Care degree, is one such student to benefit from the We Care team’s support.

Zara went into foster care at age 13, due to problems in her home life. She has had the same foster carers ever since, and remains close, describing them as her ‘family’. The young girl in the John Lewis Advert standing at the door, clutching a skateboard, resonated with Zara the first time she met her own foster carers.

“I remember every second of that day, asking so many questions, I even asked if their house was a mansion! They are amazing, and we remain very close, I am very much part of their family. The John Lewis advert really touched me. To see that representation of children in care meant so much. There are so many misconceptions about children in care, we aren't often portrayed in a positive light, but this advert was done so well and in the right way.

Zara, who plans to study for a Masters degree once she graduates and eventually become a social worker, supporting children in care, says the We Care team was a lifeline when she began her degree.

“The team have been amazing and are always there when I needed them. They helped with accommodation and a bursary, taking the stress out of university in a new place and not knowing anyone. I absolutely love it here and have never looked back, there’s always someone here to support me with anything I need, even just to talk to and have a regular coffee with.”

Zara added: “The We Care at Christmas appeal is also a fantastic idea, receiving a present really does help, to know others out there really do care. Those little things are important and make you feel like you belong.”

Wendy Price, OBE, Head of Widening Access & Participation at the University of Sunderland, said: “We recognise there are certain times of the year which our students can find particularly challenging, so we reach out to them all regularly; these include birthdays, Christmas, Easter, exam periods and preparation for graduation. We strive to be sensitive and inclusive in all of our communications avoiding the assumption that all students will be ‘going home for Christmas’ or ‘inviting parents and family members to graduation ceremonies. Our students tell us that this relatively small detail goes a long way towards supporting them to feel valued and ‘visible’ as part of the University community.”

The University strives to raise awareness of the needs of care-experienced students both regionally and nationally. As part of this role, staff are regularly invited to contribute to national policy documents and advise other colleagues and professionals within higher education and more broadly across sectors such as education, social care and national networks such as Uni Connect.

Wendy says: “We recognise that we have a key role in raising the educational aspirations of pupils as well as providing training and development opportunities for staff.

“We support local authorities across the region by offering training to key workers and foster carers to share the benefits of higher education, clarify the application process and share the success stories of our current students.”

She added: “Higher education can be a stabilising factor and transformative experience in the lives of these students. Support to progress into and through higher education allows these students to thrive, personally and professionally, in higher education and beyond.”

For more information about the We Care team, click here

To donate to our We Care at Christmas appeal, click here