‘I was more likely to see the inside of a prison than a university given my family situation’

Escaping an abusive family situation meant that Scottish student Sam Macrae had to fight harder to gain a place at university

May 22 2019
estrangement, university, student, higher education

After years of abuse and neglect, at the age of 16 I left my parental home. Because of this, I thought I had lost any chances of ever attending university and making something of myself.

I was told by my social worker at the time that I was more likely to see the inside of a prison than a university, given my family situation. This could have broken all my motivation to work hard in school; however, it just fuelled my desire to be successful and prove these people wrong. 

Being forced to leave my parental home came about after a particularly stressful few months that had a detrimental effect on my mental and physical health. I moved in with my grandparents, with whom I still live when not at university.  

Adapting to “normal” family life was challenging given my experiences of living in an abusive and neglectful household for a long period of time. I lacked the emotional stability to sit down for something as mundane as a cooked family meal or enjoy a hot shower. Being shown routine kindness made me feel physically sick as these were things that I had never experienced until this point. 

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Education has always been a form of escape for me and provided me with the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the chaos going on at home I was determined to stay in school.

For me, one of the most powerful motivators was being underestimated, because it provided an intense drive to better myself and secure my future. I achieved five As at the end of my fifth year – paid for in blood, sweat and tears from the emotional turmoil of family breakdown. The ultimate goal of studying at university was now well within sight.

Applying to university without parental support was a daunting experience, especially as the first person in my family to attend. Having a lack of people to confide in increased my anxiety about the process.

In the Scottish Highlands, you grow up with the understanding that if you want to go to university, you have to move to a big city. For me, this involved moving several hundred miles from Inverness to Glasgow, away from my support network.

Nevertheless, during my application process I learned that there was help available and I emailed the widening participation departments at all the universities I was applying to. The support offered varied widely, with one these institutions not even replying to the initial email and one asking me to provide a timeline of my life as “proof” of my experiences.

This was an extremely difficult piece of work to formulate and felt like an insensitive request from that particular institution; it downplayed the extent of the trauma and difficulties that I had faced.

I was thankful that I received an incredible level of support from Dr Daniel Keenan at the University of Glasgow (the university I attend now) who encouraged me to tick the Ucas application care leaver box to ensure that I was well supported, which is something I would have never have thought to do on my own.

But, strictly speaking, I am not a care leaver. Despite having social work intervention in my family, I left when I was 16 years old and therefore regarded as an adult in the eyes of the law. For this reason I was not formally removed from my family home and placed in care, but rather left to cope on my own without any form of support.

As a result, I have hardly any rights, no corporate parent to lean on, and am entitled to significantly less bursary funding than a young person with care experience. 

Starting university was a massive step for me. Much to my surprise the challenges of being an estranged student do not end after the initial application process. A major stumbling block for me going into my second year was attempting to find a guarantor for a flat. My grandparents have been retired for many years so did not meet the guarantor requirements to be “economically active”.

This set me apart from my friends. I felt the burden of my family circumstances and ultimately this prevented me from getting a flat and placed me back into student accommodation. This was also something that I needed a guarantor for, but after many weeks of panic, a former teacher put her name down to act as my guarantor.

Living in halls in my second year has been a challenging experience for me because it is not really a home, just a room that you occupy for the duration of the academic year. Having recently made arrangements to live in a flat for next year I am excited to live somewhere that I can genuinely call home.

Despite all of the associated difficulties and challenges I have faced, being an estranged student makes me unique and gives me an optimistic view of the world around me. It makes me thankful for all the little things in my life, such as having a roof over my head and the ongoing support of my remaining family and friends, which are things that many take for granted.

University has opened my eyes to so many different experiences, and I hope to be able to use this time to continue to improve the outcomes and support for others in similar positions in the future. I have made that choice to let this experience make me and not break me. But I need support to help me along the way.

Read more: Experiencing university as an estranged student 

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