Estranged students need more support from universities

A student estranged from her family tells the story of how she manages at university despite steep challenges others do not face

October 24 2016
Estranged at university

I first realised that I was classed as an estranged student during freshers’ week. Everyone else in my building had family to help them move into halls; I had enlisted the help of a friend who I hardly knew to get me from my temporary room to university. My flatmates had new kitchen equipment, the latest editions of textbooks and brand new computers – all bought for them in anticipation of their exciting new university experience.

People cried as they said goodbye to their parents and siblings – I sat awkwardly in my room wishing that I had someone to miss me, and someone to miss.

I had bought all the utensils that I could afford with the little money I had saved, photocopied pages from the old library textbook editions and, when my laptop broke, I used a rusty Hewlett Packard that would turn off whenever it felt like it.

I had a very chaotic childhood, littered with traumatic experiences that eventually led to the breakdown in my relationship with my family, and my estrangement. I’d been forced to leave home at 17, and I just didn’t have time to appreciate the reality of my circumstances.

My time in halls was the first time that I’d ever really admitted to myself, let alone anyone else, that my life experiences, both past and present, were remarkably different from the experiences of my peers.

One of the lowest points in my academic life was losing out on my place at a prestigious Russell Group university because I had not delivered the expected results, and could not cope at school when my family disintegrated halfway through the sixth form.  

I was so focused on doing everything that I could to get to university that I simply hadn’t realised how tough my situation was. There are thousands of students just like me and our everyday reality is often one of uncertainty and fear of the basic things in life falling through. It’s not easy to concentrate on studying.

After my first year at university, I had to battle to get my private rental lease to include the summer holidays rather than starting in the autumn. I was sitting my exams while I was trying to secure a house – it felt like there was always a dog at my heels with no real respite from the feelings of uncertainty.

Both the Student Loans Company and institutions across the country fail to recognise that not every student has a home to go back to in the summer months, meaning that many students find themselves temporarily homeless and without the option to renew their student accommodation, which typically are available for lease only during term-time.

Research shows that the money Student Finance England dish out is not enough for the whole year, and estranged students are unable to claim housing benefit or any other statutory support, so these students, like me, resort to sofa-surfing to avoid the streets.

I used to look for help in the wrong places, relying on my friends who were not well equipped to help me process my past experiences. I was often disappointed that I couldn’t get the support from them that I needed. It was only when I met a university counsellor that I realised that the best source of validation is from within. Dealing with the trauma of estrangement can often bring mental health issues to the surface. If adequate mental health care is not accessible for estranged students, it is likely to have a detrimental effect on their studies and university experience.

Only 42 per cent of estranged students access counselling services even though more than 70 per cent of those supported by Stand Alone – a charity for estranged people – say that access to counselling and other services is of high importance. This suggests that institutions have a responsibility to improve their services in order to engage students.

So many estranged students are emotionally vulnerable while learning to cope with the lack of family support, and this needs to be recognised accordingly.

There is an academic child inside me that is thirsty for knowledge and I have always loved education so much, but the lack of financial security and parental guidance has been the biggest barrier to my academic success. There are so many things that I have wanted to do but the reality is that I often concentrate the most on making my rent each month.

The Stand Alone Pledge is a new initiative pioneered by Stand Alone that seeks to encourage universities to provide adequate support and resources for estranged students in the areas of finance, accommodation, mental health and outreach.

With the support of Stand Alone, universities will be able to work to improve the quality of the university experience for all estranged students. The premise is to advocate for equity, not equality. Estranged students are often disadvantaged in several areas from the start of their university career, and so the project seeks to help institutions bridge this gap to ensure that every student gets the chance to excel, despite their dysfunctional family background.

Many estranged students have an incredible amount of resilience and have triumphed against the odds to obtain a university education, just as I have tried to. The students’ sheer determination should be recognised and rewarded with support and care. Education already costs so much and may well cost more in the future; let’s work together to give students support that is worth the price.

Find out more about The Stand Alone Pledge here.

Emily Nelson is a writer, a former student at Brunel University London, and student voice project officer at Stand Alone, a charity supporting estranged students. 


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