‘ I thought: everyone is going to be so posh’
Five students from very different backgrounds shared a single ambition: to go to university. They tell how they overcame the financial and psychological obstacles in their way
When Emma Lockwood was growing up i n 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 never remember hearing about grants or the Higher Education Access Route ( HEAR), a third- level admissions scheme for school leavers from socio- economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Careers guidance class was “just somewhere to do your homework”.
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.”
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: to 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 that had caused him i ntermittent problems throughout his childhood. His knee would collapse for no apparent reason, and he would go down and get back up five or 10 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 worse 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.”
If we had 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. 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 still just 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
Ruka Adeluola came to Ireland alone from Nigeria when she was 12. 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