“If you’re going back to education at 33, it better be good!”

That’s the attitude of Ben Clarke, an Access to HE student from Newham College who has just accepted a place to read Psychology at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge.

“I looked at the best thing you can do after the course and Cambridge is ranked top for Psychology in the Guardian, so I thought, why wouldn’t I consider it?”

Starting out

Ben left school at 16 with what he describes as “decent GCSE results but by no means straight A’s”.

As a musician, Ben hoped to make a career out of that, but, after speaking to his careers advisor he started an Apprenticeship as a plumber.

He quickly realised that plumbing wasn’t for him, and after six weeks he left and took on temporary work whilst beginning to perform with a few bands. Ben moved from his native Lincolnshire to London and enjoyed relative success with his music, touring the UK, Europe and the USA and playing in some big venues.

He combined working in the hospitality industry with continuing to play music, including a spell living and working in New York. But after doing this for a number of years decided that this wasn’t sustainable and began to look for a new career.

Although Ben had gained a variety of experience and worked in a number of jobs, he didn’t have any qualifications. This meant it wasn’t easy to transition into a new career and he found it difficult to be taken seriously by employers.

Ben decided to take some time out to reflect and work out what he wanted to do longer-term; so in 2019 he left his job to go travelling. He spent some time thinking about what he was really interested in and landed on psychology as a subject he’d be interested in.

The start of the Coronavirus pandemic meant that once again, Ben’s plans had to change, “I had to come back from my travels a little bit sooner than anticipated because of Covid. I’d just arrived in New Zealand at the time and unfortunately didn’t get to see any of the country.”

Ben returned to the UK in March 2020, just as the first lockdowns were starting, locating himself in London, which had been his main base since leaving home at 16.

Preparing for university

With the goal of studying Psychology at university in mind, he began looking for somewhere to study to prepare him. “When I first started looking at how I was going to get to University I thought I’d be able to do my A Levels at a college, but I found that if you want to do A Levels at my age, it’s pretty difficult to find somewhere suitable.”

Instead, Ben started looking at Access to HE, which is specifically designed for people who would like to study at university level, but who do not hold traditional formal qualifications. Successfully completing an Access to HE qualification is therefore often a vital stepping stone to higher education and a graduate career. When looking for an Access to HE course in psychology, he chose to study at Newham College because “what was really good was the individual help from people like [former Head of Access to HE] Bushra and the course leader Lorna.”

The course was inevitably hit by the pandemic. Beginning with in-person teaching in September, the course moved online during the lockdown in January 2021, before returning to face to face sessions in May.

“It wasn’t good having to do it online. I really sympathise with educators and teachers trying to make online lessons interactive. They did their best, but it’s a really difficult situation.”

Ben caught Coronavirus himself in January, and struggled with long-Covid symptoms afterwards. He missed the interaction and face to face elements of studying which he found difficult to replicate online, but recognises that in many ways he’s been lucky, and that some of his fellow students were facing much more challenging situations.

Despite the difficulties, his attitude, both to his own work and to his fellow students, impressed college staff, “Over the years of teaching the Access to Psychology Sciences Course at Newham College, I have met many students of different aptitude and attitude and Benjamin is an exceptional example of determination and aspiration in meeting his objectives.” Commented his tutor and Curriculum Team Leader (Psychology), Lorna Spence

His tenacity and discipline are exemplary. He is an independent learner but a conscious team player when there is need to help fellow students.

Lorna Spence, Curriculum Team Leader (Psychology), Newham College

“Benjamin is resourceful, innovative and takes time out to find additional materials to enhance his learning experience and that of others. His acceptance to Cambridge University is an indication of his hard-work, enthusiasm and resilience “

He enjoyed the variety of the Access to HE course, citing neuroscience as a really interesting part of the course, and is full of praise for the individual support provided by his tutor, Lorna, who he describes as “superb”.

Lorna has been absolutely superb. I can’t say enough good words about her really. The individual support from people like her and Bushra has been massive.

Ben Clarke, Access to HE student, Newham College

And, of course, the fact that the Access to HE Diploma can lead to the University of Cambridge is one of the best things about the course for Ben.

Outside college, Ben still plays in his band, Transatlantic Family Band, and was working on an album just before he went travelling. “We’ve been going for about 10 years, although everyone’s getting married and having kids and buying houses and those kinds of things. I’m hoping we’ll at least play a release show for our album before I start uni.”

Finding a university course

When it came to choosing a University, Ben’s approach was to ask “what’s the best possible thing that you could do off the back of this course?”

He consulted the prospectuses, league tables and rankings, to find out more about courses, facilities, reputation and tutors of the institutions that offered Psychology. And, to a lesser degree, the location, “I don’t have any ties so I could go anywhere, but most of my friends are based in London so somewhere not too far away was probably preferable – although I did also apply to Cumbria as I’m a motorcyclist so the idea of being based in Cumbria was appealing!”

Ben decided to apply to King’s College London, Cambridge, Sussex, Royal Holloway and Cumbria. He received offers from all of them.

“I want to go to the best place to study for the subject, so the course and reputation were the driving factors for me.”

I think Access to HE students should be encouraged to apply to the best universities. It never crossed my mind that Cambridge wouldn’t be an option for an Access to HE student.

Ben Clarke, Access to HE student, Newham College

Ben is keen to spread the word and pass on his experiences to give others belief. He acknowledges that often Access to HE students can struggle accessing information about the application process for the University of Cambridge and other Russell Group Universities.

He received some mentoring from Slipstream, a charity that helps students from underrepresented backgrounds aim high and get into leading universities. Although Ben only found out about them very late in the process, he was able to have a mock interview with a mentor, which he says helped to prepare him.

I want other people from difficult backgrounds and experiences to know that with qualifications like Access to HE and the right support, they can achieve.

Ben Clarke, Access to HE student, Newham College

“You have got to be really interested in the subject and passionate about it, but you can succeed.

It’s a passion that shines through when Ben talks about his course and experiences, and one that he hopes will take him on to postgraduate study or a Masters, but as his varied experiences so far have taught him, “life is a journey and you just have to roll with it sometimes. It’s good to make plans, but don’t get stuck upon them.”