My name is Holly and I graduated from Imperial College London in 2020 with a first-class honours BSc in Biochemistry. I am a first-generation student from a working-class background and rural area in the North of England. I was eligible for an Imperial Bursary throughout the three years of my undergraduate degree which helped me to financially access the Biochemistry course at Imperial. Throughout my degree, I developed an interest in the structure and function of membrane proteins. I also enjoyed taking third year modules in Systems Neuroscience and Neuroscience Research. I am interested in both scientific research and outreach and hope to combine these interests in my future career.

What motivated you to go to university and why did you choose Imperial?

I was academically-focused throughout my time at secondary school, so I decided quite early that I wanted to study at university. It was by talking to my Year 10 Chemistry teacher about her studies at university that I was made aware of Biochemistry. After completing some of my own research, I realised this was the course for me. I decided to apply to Imperial College London partially because of the reputation of the university and also because I attended access programmes run by the Imperial Outreach team. I attended a week-long summer school during the summer after completing Year 11, taking part in various Chemistry practical activities. I also took part in the STEM potential programme throughout Year 12 and 13. This involved visiting Imperial roughly once a month and taking part in practical and theoretical activities which consolidated the content taught in science lessons at school. Although London is an expensive city to study in, because of the generous Imperial Bursary, and the finance I received from my student loan, I was able to support myself without the need to work alongside my degree.

What do you wish you had known when you first started university?

I would suggest that any WP students take advantage of the opportunities at Imperial to meet people from similar backgrounds. If I were still a student, I would make sure to take advantage of the Working Class Network and I would have joined the Northern Society as well.

Another piece of advice I would pass on to students just starting their degree at Imperial is to be conscious of your money and to budget. Your student loan is paid to you in three large installments, but remember that this is supposed to last for a long period of time. Contactless payments can make it really hard to keep a track of what you are spending your money on. I would recommend either writing down or using a spreadsheet to track your money and highlight any unnecessary purchases. One tip is to have two bank accounts, one with the majority of your money, and one which is your ‘spending’ account. You can transfer a budgeted sum of money to your spending account every month which encourages you to stick to this budget and track your spending.

Tell us about the highlights of your university experience

I really enjoyed the opportunity to live in London. Moving from a rural area to the capital of England was definitely a big change, but with that came lots of opportunities. I remember during freshers week getting to travel along the Thames by boat at night. I also took advantage of living so close to the West End and went to several theatre shows across the three years I was in London and joined ArtSoc which offers discounted theatre tickets. I had the opportunity to climb to the top of Queen’s Tower during my third year. This was an amazing opportunity to see some great views of London! Studying in South Kensington also meant I was near some amazing museums. I particularly enjoyed looking around the V&A which is only about 5 minutes from the Life Sciences lecture theatres!

I also really enjoyed gaining lab experience during my degree, both through my final year project and a laboratory internship I undertook at the University of Oxford after completing my second year. This was possible through the UNIQ+ programme run by the University of Oxford which is specifically aimed at WP students. I would recommend that any WP student looks into this opportunity.

Tell us about your experiences after graduation

Whilst at Imperial, I worked as an Outreach STEM ambassador within the Outreach team. I really enjoyed the access programmes I had taken part in as a student, so I wanted to help with these when I joined Imperial. I worked on one-day events hroughout my three year degree, as well as on residential and virtual summer schools for school students of a variety of ages. Through this role, I developed skills and interests which led me to my current job as an Admissions Representative in the Access and Widening Participation team at the University of St Andrews. I am passionate about making Higher Education accessible to all, and this role has allowed me to plan and organise virtual events and workshops for Scottish students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Graduating in 2020 was a challenging experience, as I entered a very competitive job market with little experience. Although searching for a role took longer than I expected, I was able to learn from my application and interview experiences which will be useful in the future.

How did your background help you at university and how has being a WP student influenced you?

After completing my degree at Imperial, I felt, and continue to feel, immensely proud of myself and my achievements. Completing a degree is a challenge in itself, but the process of moving to London and living away from home for the first time was a huge hurdle I am proud I overcame. Being a student from an atypical background felt, at times, quite isolating, as most of my friends were from different backgrounds. However, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and I was able to meet people who shared similar experiences to myself through my work as an Outreach STEM Ambassador.

I think being a WP student has had a profound influence on me and what I aim to do in the future. I will always be an advocate for widening access in Higher Education and believe there is a long way to go before there is a truly level playing field.