‘ 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

The Irish Times Magazine - - COVER STORY -

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.”

In Ire­land?


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

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