‘Inspire to Aspire’, Emily’s Story: A Platform for the Working Class Voice

When I told my housemate that I was writing an article for a feature on working-class students in Durham, I was jokingly told: “you’re not blowing your own trumpet again are you?”. Of course, they were only messing around. But sometimes it is necessary to blow your own trumpet. We are too often afraid to celebrate our own achievements. We all worked hard to be here and any form of degree from this university is certainly impressive.

For many students here, it was just the right influences at the right time

However, if you got a place at this university and you came from a disadvantaged background – that is not only impressive, but rare. To work against the system without guidance, without help, without privilege and win is really something. For many students here, it was just a combination of having their parent’s guidance, the money for a top education and the right influences at the right time. If you came from a working-class family, having experienced a level of education tailored to and directed at a perceived idea of working-class children’s abilities, the odds were not necessarily high for you. For myself, it resulted in a feeling of complete isolation throughout my first year, where I felt a divided loyalty whenever I tried, or was forced to, engage with the social and cultural capital necessary to survive here. I felt bitterly home-sick, especially when I was forced to alter my class-bound habits in order to fit in to a social group which actively sought to exclude me anyway.

I felt this particularly in my college. Formal dinners, with the cocktail dresses, suave suits and gowns, felt so strange. I never felt deserving of the prestige and glamour that came with college life. I found myself in a regimented system, one that encompassed a whole array of elite traditions. The Durham college system requires students to attend specific meal times every day and often, to share a room. In doing so, it enforces a number of unspoken rules and a very specific social etiquette. I can appreciate that many of these traditional systems exist purely to improve the ‘confidence’ and ‘resilience’ of students. This is not necessarily a damaging idea. However, for students like myself, it did regularly feel like an attempt to assimilate working class individuals into middle-class cultural norms. Because of this, I felt very socially excluded. I constantly took a back seat in every aspect of my social and academic life. I did not join any societies or run for any positions of authority. I was engulfed by imposter syndrome, and what became increasingly apparent to me was a huge culture clash between myself and my private-schooled peers. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of them were very well-mannered, friendly and nice. But they were as unfamiliar to me as I probably was to them.

Finance should not stop anybody from attending university

For state-educated students, elite Russell Group universities bring with them a whole host of challenges which only really begin once you get here. That is why it is important for working-class students to establish a presence at their universities. The creation of the ‘Working-Class Students Association’ here in Durham is an excellent example of what students and universities can do to cater for those who have more specific needs. Finance should not stop anybody from attending university. However, the costs of summer and winter balls, college accommodation and little things like gowns and textbooks can be overwhelming. It is no longer enough for elite universities to simply admit more disadvantaged students. Students from the most deprived areas are more likely to drop out, unable to afford these high costs. They need to be supported every step of the way, not only during the admissions process, but also beyond.

Although my journey still continues, I am lucky to say that I have finally embraced who I am, my northern accent and my background. Once I realized that I was not the only one feeling this way and that there were platforms for working-class students to have a voice, I knew that hope was not lost. It is getting better. It really is, even when it does not feel like it. I originally shared my experience of being a working-class student on a Facebook page called ‘Inspire to Aspire’. This page is just one of many platforms now where stories of working-class students dominate the discourse. Sharing your experiences with other people makes you realise that you are not alone. There are also many members of this university, staff and students alike, who do genuinely care about the working-class experience. Finding these people can be a lifeline for you.

It is also important to remember that state-educated students at elite universities are advantaged in many other ways. For example, you will have met people from all walks of life. You will be comfortable in a range of different environments. You will have experienced the world from a range of perspectives, from seeing council estates in all of their glory, to hearing the cloisters of the cathedral bells on the bailey. You are a more rounded person as a result of your experiences, and your compassion and understanding can actually help people.

It is only voices from disadvantaged backgrounds that can lead the attempt to narrow that attainment and aspiration gap. As a working-class student at an elite university, you have shown that you can persevere in the face of the odds stacked against you. You have shown the world that it is possible to succeed, no matter what your background is. While every student here should benefit from getting a Durham degree, what working-class students can gain from this experience extends beyond that. You can actually help those children who we know deserve a better deal.

Many members of this university, staff and students alike, do genuinely care about the working-class experience

Finally, it must be said that you should never be ashamed of your background. Even at a university like Durham, where there is a prevailing middle-class culture, identifying as working-class might not necessarily be a bad thing. Considering the number of people who will, one day, benefit from your insight, your experiences, your compassion and the lessons you have learnt – how can it be?

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One thought on “‘Inspire to Aspire’, Emily’s Story: A Platform for the Working Class Voice

  • I am wary of things like the WCSA. It does feel a little bit like wearing the badge of victimhood, and as it happens, quite a lot of this article felt a bit like that: almost trying to justify being working-class. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either: it’s just who I am.

    I speak from experience, but from a slightly different time. I am from a working class background on Teesside (and at the time I came here in the late 80s, my parents were unemployed). I was the first person in my family to have a university education, and though I went to a middling comprehensive school (which now no longer exists, and hasn’t done for over a decade or so), there was no shortage of ambition for those who were seen as intellectually able. I was also an Oxford reject, which I thought of as a lucky escape. A couple of my school friends did go, with mixed results (one was very able and deserved his place, but it did help his dad had been at the same college previously, I think). The interviews were a lottery. A slightly different set of questions on the day, and I may have got in. Although I liked the college I applied to, I really didn’t like the city at all, so the letter came as something of a relief.

    I came here knowing that many of my peers were not going to be entirely like me, but I also knew that they had no more right to be here than I did. I had earned my place. That much confidence I did have.

    As it happens, most of the people I met were perfectly pleasant, normal people, and not insensible of the realties of the world around them. That may be the difference: it was so much harder to sit in your own comfortable little bubble then. Besides, you also soon discovered which were the people you wanted to avoid. Being out in the city was so much easier too. A Teesside accent (which I could dial up or down when useful) didn’t raise hackles, and not acting like a privileged arse helped too.

    So I treated my time here as a learning experience. Although I was (and remain) a fairly shy soul, I realised that things like the formal were rituals needed to be learned, just like every other thing I was expected to learn, because there may be times later in life where those skills would come in useful. So it has proved. A university education is much more wide-ranging than you might sometimes think, and often includes a whole array of things you didn’t think you’d want (or need) to know. I think it also helped that my chosen college was one where there was a practiced eschewal of formality.

    However, I was also fortunate in a way that the current unfortunate generation are not. I didn’t have huge amounts of debt hanging over my head. I was actually paid to come here, because I was a student in the era not only before tuition fees, but student loans too. They were introduced in my final term here, in 1991, where I could apply for the princely sum of 330 quid. I did, because I needed to. My parents couldn’t offer me much in the way of financial support, but that didn’t matter. They sacrificed a lot for me, and I didn’t feel it was fair to ask them for much more. But I managed, and I found friends that, 30 years later, I’m still proud to have. I learned the things I needed to, and I got through.

    Coming here is a mindset. If you arrive feeling inferior and defeated before you start, it tends to become self-prophetic. You are who, and what, you are, and that’s why Durham wanted you, so that’s who, and what, you should be, with no apology.


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