Before starting university, I had been estranged from my parents for nearly five years. However, I did not realise the “technical” term for my family situation until I began to fill out my student finance application.
Because of the situation I was in, applying for finance was difficult and involved sending off various letters and evidence about my living situation. This caused problems as the reasons for my estrangement were different for each parent – my father has never been in my life and my mother passed away when I was 14.
Compared with other estranged students, I have been lucky and had the support of my maternal grandparents who let me live with them. Unfortunately, my grandparents were unable to support my student finance application and that made things more difficult.
Now, in my final year of university, I have been classed as estranged for seven years. Looking back on my experience, although I have been lucky enough not to face the threat of homelessness throughout the summer months, there have been difficulties along the way.
For instance, when moving into university halls in my first year, I had to ask my friends to help me. This made me feel anxious and embarrassed because my fellow flatmates had help from their parents – I was conscious that they were wondering where my parents were and that it would lead to questions that I was not ready to answer. Thankfully, the group of girls I moved in with were understanding and I quickly felt comfortable enough to explain the situation that I was in.
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I have lived with the same housemates for three years now and have always had their full support at challenging times when I miss my mum or if an anniversary is coming up. However, there were barriers for me when finding accommodation for my second year.
There was immense pressure to find money for a deposit and put down a guarantor – I did not want to ask my grandparents for help with this when I felt that it was my responsibility, although eventually I did have to ask. My university does offer a generous bursary every year for estranged students, but at the time I was unaware of the support that was available. If I had known, it would have been a lot easier for me to feel confident enough to seek out support to help with my deposit.
To ensure that I have the money to have a “normal” student experience, throughout university I have worked in part-time positions to help fund myself without having to rely on my grandparents or solely on my student loan. The bursary offered by the university, which I was able to access this year, has helped immensely because it means that during exam seasons and coursework deadlines I have been able to drop the number of hours I work, which helps to relieve stress.
Recently I attended a conference hosted by Stand Alone, which focused on the difficulties that estranged students face when finding and accessing accommodation while at university. I felt really proud to have been able to share my experience and suggest to HE professionals how to improve accessibility, because it is emotional and difficult to move to another city, even for students who have family support. In addition to this, Stand Alone have created documents to help people understand estrangement and inform estranged students about the assistance that they can get.
Overall, university has opened my eyes to people in a whole range of situations. It is important to remember that each estranged student’s experience is different.
Additionally, estrangement can happen at any point in someone’s life – a friend of mine was not estranged when I met him in my first year of university but unfortunately became estranged during his studies. This was tough because he was having to keep up with studies but also had to learn how to live on his own without family support for the first time.
I think it is important that each student has an individual amount and type of support needed – you cannot generalise and assume that every student is the same, even if it is found that the majority are in similar situations.
Chloe Fallon is a business management student at De Montfort University.