“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?”
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