She was homeless at 12. In college at 20

Five people describe the obstacles they have overcome to make it to third-level

Ruka Adeluola: after coming to Ireland alone from Nigeria when she was 12, she is studying biotechnology at DCU. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ruka Adeluola: after coming to Ireland alone from Nigeria when she was 12, she is studying biotechnology at DCU. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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When Emma Lockwood was growing up in Dublin’s north inner city, she could see two versions of her future mapped out in front of her: have a baby or do a Fás course.

“I looked around around me, and it was all people going home to their newborn. Or it was all about doing a Fás course in something like hair or make-up.”

There was nothing wrong with either choice, but she wanted more. She was always the child at the front of the class, wanting to learn.

“There was no talk of CVs, points for college” where she went to school. She doesn’t remember ever hearing about grants or the Higher Education Access Route (Hear), a third-level admissions scheme for school-leavers from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Careers-guidance class was “just somewhere to do your homework”.

You looked at the students walking in the gate of DCU or Trinity like it was no big deal as though they were creatures from another planet. You never imagined that might be you

Even talking about university marked you out as “a snob”, someone who thought they were better than everyone else. So you didn’t talk about it. You didn’t ask. You looked at the students walking in the gate of DCU or Trinity like it was no big deal as though they were creatures from another planet. You never imagined that might be you.

By sixth year Lockwood didn’t see any point in studying – the Leaving Cert was “only a piece of paper. It couldn’t make you money.”

Her older brother had left school after fourth year, and her dad, a lone parent, assumed she’d get a job out of school too.

Bianca Paun, who grew up in Kilcock, Co Kildare, always had her sights on college. She came to Ireland at the age of 11 from Romania. She is one of 12 children, and books were a refuge from the noise and chaos of family life, a way of learning English, and of winning approval from her teacher, who would give out a prize for the first child to read their way through a list of 20 novels. Paun always wanted to win.

In fifth year her friends started talking about CAO points and going to college. It never occurred to her that she wouldn’t do the same, despite the labels that attach themselves to people from her background.

“In Ireland, when you ask people what’s your idea of a Roma person, they’d never say ‘someone who goes to college and has a career’. But I always had that motivation behind me that I’m going to go to college, I’m going to get a degree, and I’m going to prove people are wrong about what a Roma girl can do.”

The only question for her was how. It wasn’t a minor question. Her older brother was already in university and, with 12 children to look after, her parents would struggle to support a second child through college.

“My worries were all financial. In my class, nobody ever talked about college and how I’m going to pay for it. Maybe other people had the same worries but nobody ever said it.”

Emma Lockwood: now studying for a master’s in law at DCU. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Emma Lockwood: now studying for a master’s in law at DCU. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Very academic

Ryan Lynch was always “very academic, very geared towards university”. From a young age he went to Coder Dojo classes and from 12 or 13 he had already formulated a plan: study computer science and go on to work somewhere like Google.

But then, at the end of fifth year, “my knee just kind of collapsed, smashed itself basically”. He has a condition called complex regional pain syndrome which had caused him intermittent problems throughout his childhood. His knee would collapse for no reason, and he would go down, and get back up five or ten minutes later. This time, he couldn’t get up, and “when the nerve tried to repair itself, it actually got worse. It got to the stage where the pain was the entire way up my side”.

It was around two weeks later, when he was in hospital and the pain was beginning to subside with medication, that he picked up a book, and found he couldn’t read it.

“It was just random symbols on a page. If I focused really hard it would start to make sense, but the more I did that, the worst the pain got.”

Later, his doctors would figure out that “there was some link made in my brain when the pain started between the reading and writing”.

Is that rare, I ask.

“I’m the only one.”

In Ireland?

“Anywhere.”

If we’d met two years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to finish a sentence.

“My entire side was in pain, it was burning, and it never eased. I needed help to get dressed. I couldn’t walk. The things I’d always loved, reading and working on computers, were gone.”

And just like that, his dream of going to university “was gone too. I went from hoping for 500 points in my Leaving to thinking I wasn’t going to be able to do it”.

Ruka Adeluola came to Ireland alone from Nigeria when she was 12 years old. Her parents wanted her to study and have a better life, but when she got here, she realised it wasn’t going to be that simple. She had been sent to live with a cousin in Kildare.

“My parents knew the education here was better,” she recalls.

But the cousin had other plans. She never enrolled Adeluola in school, making her stay home and work.

“There were other things going on there too.”

She couldn’t stay, and she couldn’t talk to her parents, because the cousin supervised all her phone calls. So she ran away. She was a child of 12, alone in a strange country where she couldn’t speak the language and had no money. She was walking on the street in Celbridge, in tears, when “a lady, just some random lady, stopped me and asked if I was okay”.

The woman took her to the Garda station. That was the beginning of six years in care: six years in which she moved school three times, before finally settling with “a really nice” family in Walkinstown for her last two years of schooling.

“It was really hard. But I came to Ireland to study, and I knew I was going to study, because of all the things I went through so I could do it. I used to have to work much harder than everyone else, but I was going to do it.”

Bianca Paun: she is now in fourth year at Maynooth University, studying law, and plays for a local rugby team. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Bianca Paun: she is now in fourth year at Maynooth University, studying law, and plays for a local rugby team. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Socio-economic challenges

Alexander Fay grew up in Dublin’s North Wall. He resists labels like “disadvantaged areas” because they can become self-fulfilling.

“I understand that there are socio-economic challenges in an area like mine, but it wasn’t a ‘disadvantage’ for me to come from that area.”

It made him who he is.

Resilience and determination are frequently underappreciated advantages when it comes to surviving university life.

“If you’re given everything quite easily, as soon as you hit a roadblock, you don’t have the experience of overcoming it.”

He always had reams of both. He comes from a family which is entrepreneurial to its bones – running a local shop, and before that a pub, and holding positions in the local residents’ associations.

His own ambitions began to take shape in sixth class in primary school, when he got invited on a summer school run by the Trinity access programme, or Tap. His relationship with the college continued afterwards.

“By my Junior Cert, they were giving me grinds in maths.”

In sixth year, he applied for a place on the Trinity foundation course for young adults. 

Despite what a recent editorial in the Trinity University Times called “a centuries-old reputation for trenchant elitism”, he has had no trouble integrating.

“I met one of my best friends in college when I was waiting outside a lecture hall, and he heard my accent, and he came up to me and said ‘That’s a great accent, that is. Where does that come from?’”

Five minutes from here, Fay told him.

Twenty-eight years ago, a “far-sighted” group at DCU began to look at all the barriers that would stop someone going to, or considering, third level, even when the university was on their doorstep. Out of those conversations, the country’s first access programme was created, says the head of DCU’s access service, Cathy McLoughlin.

Today, 1,300 students – 10 per cent of the student body – get into DCU via its access programme on the basis of socio-economic need. A further five per cent of student places go to people with disability; ten per cent go to mature students and another ten per cent to people from further education courses.

Ryan Lynch: studies computer science at Maynooth University. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ryan Lynch: studies computer science at Maynooth University. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Progression rate

“It’s something we don’t shout about enough,” says McLoughlin. 

Access students at DCU do extremely well. Of the class of 2018, which graduated last month, 70 per cent of the access students got a first or a 2.1 in their degree; 97 per cent got a 2.2 or higher.

Trinity’s version, Tap, was established 25 years ago, and counts Senator Lynn Ruane amongst its alumni. A quarter of undergraduates at Trinity now come from underrepresented backgrounds. Part of the reason for its success is that it starts doing outreach with students like Fay while they’re still in primary school. It is regarded as such a success internationally, it inspired similar programmes in Oxford, and an initiative to be implemented across all colleges in Cambridge University from 2020.

“If we look at law undergraduates who went in under Tap, over 70 per cent get 2.1s. The progression rate (the percentage who pass their exams and go on to the next year) is over 97 per cent. The students are very clever, they work hard, the stakes are high,” says Tap director Cliona Hannon.

It makes her “a mixture of enraged and awestruck” that there are other students, other Alexanders and Biancas and Emmas and Rukas and Ryans out there, “in danger of falling through the cracks”.

At Maynooth, 28 per cent of the full-time student population are mature students, students with disabilities or school leavers from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds. The university has the highest rate of mature students and students with a disability in the country.

The other universities run access programmes too: UCD and UCC reserve five per cent of places for Hear students, and five per cent for applicants through the Disability Access Route, or Dare.

At NUI Galway, 15 per cent of places are reserved for “non-traditional students”, of which around five per cent go to Hear students. University of Limerick also has an access programme.

For Emma Lockwood, getting her acceptance letter from DCU was “surreal” and “very, very daunting”.

“I thought everyone in here is going to be so posh, their parents will be there waving them off. I thought I’d have to lie about where I’m from.”

She heard of the access route to college when she was repeating her Leaving, having been “really disillusioned” by her results first time round.

Ruka Adeluola: “The grinds, the financial help, just somebody to talk to when something is going on. It has changed my life. I’m the happiest I’ve been since I left Nigeria.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ruka Adeluola: “The grinds, the financial help, just somebody to talk to when something is going on. It has changed my life. I’m the happiest I’ve been since I left Nigeria.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Wake-up call

“It was a wake-up call. When you don’t have that support at school, you have all this ambition and you have nowhere to put it. So I took inspiration from the people around me. I looked at them and I thought, ‘I don’t want that life’. I was working eight or nine hours a day, and I was pushing myself all the time.”

She chose law because, “growing up in north inner city you see a lot of things. Girls in my class who had newborns, their boyfriends would be drug dealing on the side. I’d go out in the morning and there would be a drug addict overdosed on my doorstep.” She wanted to be part of the solution.

Lockwood has just graduated when we speak. She can’t believe now she was ever so daunted. “Sitting there yesterday, I was thinking, I’m the same as every single other girl or guy in the room. We all walk onto the same stage, we all get the same piece of paper. It made me feel like I’m the same as everyone else, regardless of my background.”

Ruka Adeluola heard about DCU’s access programme through her support worker in her final year at school. She got into science, and is in now her second year, with plans to work in the biotech sector. She is evangelical about what the programme has done for her.

“The grinds, the financial help, just somebody to talk to when something is going on. It has changed my life. I’m the happiest I’ve been since I left Nigeria.”

Ryan Lynch walks into the room at Maynooth University where we meet. The crutches are gone. He seems to move easily and smiles often. It’s hard now to believe he was ever sick, but he says the pain is still there.

“It might never go away, but I’m managing it. Everything seems to be going right. I’m loving what I’m doing.”

Most people get into college on the basis of points. I got into college because I’m me

He was still in tremendous pain in the summer of 2017, when he sat his Leaving as “a practice run” for when he got better. But when it came to the results:, “I passed every subject. I couldn’t believe it”.

He got one point above the requirements for computer science in Maynooth. Even so, he didn’t think he’d be physically able for college – he planned to defer a year to get his reading and writing skills back – but the disability advisor at Maynooth persuaded him to give it a try.

“Nothing was a problem. Whatever I needed, they came up with a solution. In the beginning, he took it from week to week, then month to month. By Christmas, he thought he might make it through the year. Last summer, he got 70 per cent in his first year exams.

“I was only two weeks off my crutches,” he grins.

Guidance counsellor

Bianca Paun was lucky to have a guidance counsellor at school, Scoil Dara in Kilcock, who spotted her abilities, and talked her through all the different routes to university.

She got a place in politics, sociology and law at Maynooth in first year through the access programme, and later transferred into pure law. She’s now in fourth year, studying hard and playing for a local women’s rugby club.

Last year, having campaigned for rugby scholarships for women, she was one of nine girls at Maynooth awarded one. She volunteers with Pavee Point and plans to specialise in human rights law. Playing rugby for Ireland “is the ultimate dream”.

Alexander Fay is in his second year at Trinity, studying science. Next year, he hopes to transfer into physics. It has been a hugely positive experience for him, but he’s wary of suggesting that third level is for everyone. Coming from certain areas “you want to go on to college because no one else has gone there, but at the same time if it’s not for you, that could be a bad step.”

Ultimately, he’d like to do something that combines his passion for science with creating opportunities for young people. The desire to give back to their community is something Hannon says is common among access students.

Fay is a Tap mentor and one of the organisers of Edmund Rice Camps, free week-long camps that run every summer for 8 to 12 year-olds from areas of socio-economic disadvantage. He lights up talking about it. “It’s something I would have benefitted from as a kid. It’s good that these opportunities are available. If I hadn’t got into the access programme, I probably wouldn’t be in college today.”

He is proud to have got into college through Tap. “Most people get into college on the basis of points. I got into college because I’m me.”

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