No ‘end of year exam’ for me either!

Non-metropolitan – highly rural – West Wales. Isolation is my normal.


Way over here in the west, until September 2019 I spent 15 years working within a University context to widen participation and enable social inclusion. For almost three of those years I was Director of Equality for the University, setting strategy and working with and for staff, students, visitors and the local community. It seems to me that this was a vocation, not a job and I had the luxury of support and security to work as I wanted and when I wanted (that’s a euphemism for ‘too much’ I think!).


My role was to improve access to higher education and to foster equality of opportunity. I worked with a small, fantastic and dedicated team with an ethos of doing ‘real’ widening access work. Bending the requirements of an organisation, within the aims and objectives of a funding council and a nation state government’s political purpose, in order to carry out life changing work was an ideal, a goal I set myself – and surrounded myself with the brightest and the best in tutors, mentors and support that could help. A team in a true sense.


I am looking back one year, which started with a leap; all that had been so important for 15 years was swept away. It was a choice that I wanted to make, to change my life and my priorities. So, it’s interesting to look back at the end of an academic year and mark myself – did I pass? What grade would I give? Can I progress to year 2?


I realise that so much of what I tried to teach, to impart, to convey to the school and college students we worked with, long before they ever thought about actually applying to University, has been my scaffold and support in what turned out to be an unimaginable year.


Our ‘flagship’ project, a 6-week Summer University residential project for 80-90 students from all over Wales was the mainstay of my work, the end of the year test. These (largely 16-24-year olds) students came from the Valleys and inner cities of the south, the towns and rural spaces of the centre, the industrial areas of the north, the far flung reaches of Anglesey.


We spent our year with this project threaded through, building up to a summer of intense work, 18 hours days, emotional crises, accidents and emergencies, joy and sadness. 6-weeks of making positive memories and changing outlooks, challenge and growth. How would I ever replace that in a new life – working on my own, caring for a partner, living a different (and as it turned out), an ‘unprecedented’ year with no-one to guide me, no real limits and no annual appraisal or ‘exam’.


The answer: I made myself do all those things I had encouraged the Summer students to do. Try something new, move out of your comfort zone, if you don’t like something, it won’t last forever.

In their case, a 2-week module that wasn’t what you’d hoped for; in my case a project role that I just didn’t care about. To think about my own wellbeing and mental health in a completely new environment. To take a chance and trust a stranger. To talk about things that worry you. To ask for help. To do the best I could and learn from mistakes. All very familiar but in a 6th decade, following your own advice can be difficult.


Taking stock, my partner is still here (and health improving), I’ve managed to start a new business. I’ve undertaken some training. I’ve grown some wonky veg and recovered an area of the garden from the weeds, nettles and brambles that swamped it. Worked in some of the most difficult schools in mid-Wales, encouraging joy in learning, getting messy, with stealthy science. Found space to do some pro-bono work for local organisations. Pushed myself to realise that I have some areas of expertise that a couple of Trust Boards can use. And taken the next steps in a ‘portfolio career’ (and life).


I think I might get a 2:2 this year for working life; a 2:1 for home, health and positivity; and a 1st for effort. I’m happy with that. Bring on year 2.


Dr Debra Croft is a member of the Speakers Collective and specialises in empowering young people, Education, Learning (formal &informal) E&D, Mentoring and Coaching. Find out more about Debra here and how to book her for your next event.

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