She didn’t think university could be for her – Now she’s an award-winning alumna who wants to help others

“I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I couldn’t wait to leave.”
As a teenager living in foster care, Rosie Wainwright (Law, 2016) couldn’t imagine going to university, but when a student from City visited her college, she realised she had options. This summer, Rosie won the Festival of Learning 2021 – Outstanding Individual Learner Award, nominated by the Helena Kennedy Foundation. 

“I never thought someone like me would go to university. I just didn’t think that I could go, and I didn’t want to go. I had this opinion that it was for sort of posh people and I’m not posh, so I couldn’t go there,” Rosie says.
Her thinking however began to change when a student from City, University of London visited her college and told his own story which resonated with Rosie. It made her curious, but even when Rosie wanted to attend university, she didn’t know how she would be able to manage it financially. As soon as she turned 18, she had to leave foster care and live independently.
“Trying to manage that and thinking how am I going to pay my rent, my bills, my Council Tax, all of this stuff, and afford to not work and go to university? It felt kind of impossible.”

It wasn’t until a teacher told her about the Helena Kennedy Foundation, a charity that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress from further education colleges into higher education, that things began to look up. Although Rosie still had to work throughout university, the realisation that there was financial support available to her was encouraging, and it also helped Rosie choose her university.
“When I went to the City webpage and looked at the support that they offered, they had something in place for care leavers or young people that have been in the care system,” Rosie says. “The bursary supported me to get clothes for when I had internships, it was for extra books and money towards the laptop, and things like that. So, it just really helped me get by at university.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Rosie Wainwright has just been given a national award from the Festival of Learning 2021 for going above and beyond in her education despite experiencing hardship. It’s recognition she values as she knows the others in the category also worked hard to get to where they are today. Did the journey change her view on higher education?
“What I began to realise is that there’s no one fixed route of learning. For me sitting in a classroom and wearing a uniform, being talked at for hours was not how I learned best at that time at that age. And that’s why I struggled,” Rosie explains. University was different. “For me, higher education transformed my life. Really because of the kind of extra-curricular things that I could get involved in, which helped me discover who I am, and the people that I met. And then also the challenge of the studies and the exams. It was really an experience like no other.”

Although university fit Rosie’s way of learning better, studying law didn’t always come easy.
“It was quite challenging at first because I remember sitting in my first lecture and I had loads of gaps in my notes because I had no idea about the words the lecturer was using because even though I am English, I didn’t use that vocabulary at home. So, I had no idea what people were talking about. But then, I guess, things just get easier.” Rosie says. “And you meet people from all over the world from different backgrounds, different classes, different cultures, and you learn so much from them, like my friendship groups were so diverse. So yeah, it really opened my mind and got me thinking about what I want to do in my career and what I want my life to look like.”

Even though Rosie’s views on higher education have completely changed and she wants to encourage others to explore it, she’s still aware of the downside of putting so much value on a university degree. She reflects on how the way you talk or where you come from can keep you from being seen or heard unless you can show the right piece of paper.
“Regardless of the subject matter, it’s sad in a way how society listens to you if someone sees that you have a degree or you’ve been to university. It helps having a degree to kind of get your foot in the door in these places.”

Since Rosie graduated from City, University of London she has continued to study and develop her skills.
“I’ve done a postgraduate qualification in International Business Law. And then I went on to do a coaching qualification,” she says. “When I was younger, my view was that why do I need to learn? Why do I need to know this stuff? I can just go out and get a job and earn money. Whereas now it’s actually quite important to have qualifications, or even if it’s not something you get a certificate for, you’re learning, you’re reading books, you’re constantly developing yourself.”
With the help of her degree she worked in New York for a while before returning to the UK.
“I was kind of conflicted because when you have a degree in a certain subject area like law, you feel compelled that you have to go down that route. But actually, it’s the opposite because the amount of transferable skills that are gained from getting that qualification, like research, being able to read fast, and look at something that’s complex and break it down to something that’s digestible, these are all really good transferable skills for whatever company that you want to work for.”
Rosie realised that she wanted to work in roles where she could give back and help others. This included a couple of years in the Widening Participation Team and the Student and Academic Services department at City, University of London and now she is Regional Manager at the charity Career Ready which supports young people. In November Rosie will make her next career move where she is confident she’ll be able to continue to create changes in society and support those who need it.

Having faced her share of challenges, what does Rosie feel her biggest success is so far?
“I think my biggest success, personally, is that last year I bought my property. Growing up, there was a period where I was actually homeless, and now I’m a homeowner. When I got the mortgage agreement, I actually couldn’t believe it.”
And what would Rosie’s advice be to anyone who might have a similar background to her own and perhaps feel higher education isn’t for them?
“Weigh up what your own positives and negatives are. If the negatives are just your own preconceived barriers like; it’s not for me, or people like me, or you get into a lot of debt, just get that out of your mind. Because the whole debt thing, which I hear a lot of young people talk about, you don’t even notice. In the big picture, it doesn’t mean anything. So, I would say, really have a good think about how you like to learn. And you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to do for the future, just go for it.”

A big thank you to Rosie Wainwright for sharing her story and congratulations on her award!