Vulnerable students no longer have to stand alone
The University of Brighton recently became one of the first Higher Education Institutions in the south to sign the Stand Alone Pledge. The pledge is the brainchild of Becca Bland, Brighton alumna (Editorial Photography BA(Hons) 2006) and Chief Executive of UK charity, Stand Alone. Becca established the charity following her first-hand experience of being an estranged student – one who has no immediate family support network.
Since launching the charity, Becca regularly writes and gives media interviews on issues affecting estranged adults. Becca talks more about how her experiences motivated her to found the charity.
Who are estranged students?
Estranged students are students who don’t have the support or approval of their family network. There are many reasons that young people become estranged from their family, but family abuse, mismatched values and beliefs, and changes in family structures around divorce and remarriage are the most common. We help a wide variety of students – some have escaped forced marriage, others have been rejected for coming out as LGBT+ or by new step parents who don’t see them as having a place in the family. The process can be gradual, or it can follow one or more incidents, but in most cases students will have little or no contact with their parents or guardians.
Can you tell us more about your time as an estranged student at the University of Brighton?
I was not fully estranged from my family whilst at the University of Brighton, but my family were very distant and uninterested in me after I set off for university. I had very little contact with them. Unlike most students, my parents did not visit or move me into my accommodation, they didn’t send me gifts or set me up with pots and pans to cook. I felt very alone and very abnormal, as I saw many young people of my age receive the love and support of a close functioning family. I thought it must have been my fault.
What challenges did you face?
The biggest challenge was facing the sense of apathy from my parents, and seeing others who did have that supportive and loving family around them. It enforced a sense of isolation and shame, and made me feel really different from my peers. I think also I wasn’t confident that people would necessarily understand, so it made it harder to talk to people and find support. During the summer holidays I stayed in town, and enjoyed a long Brighton summer, which was great, but was sometimes very frustrating when people asked why I was not ‘going home’. I had so many frustrating incidents with estate agents, who couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a guarantor, and why my parents would not be one.
Did you get any support? If so, in what form?
The university counselling department was excellent. The counsellor I saw helped me to discuss the painful memories I was holding, and helped me make plans for myself and my future. He helped me to feel a sense of relief, and for the first time, I felt completely heard and understood. I also drew on the creative community around me, and responded with my creative work during my first year. I think I fed the sense of rejection I felt from my family into my creative drive and ambitions.
Your situation obviously had a profound effect on you. How did you set about getting the support to create a charity to help other people who found themselves in a similar situation?
So many people ask me how I have had the strength to start a charity. I always thank my creative education in response. It has been invaluable in helping me build Stand Alone and grow it to the successful organisation it is today. I see so many people question why you would do a creative degree. But during my time at Brighton, I gained the skills and confidence to pick up an idea and take it from inception to realisation, and then promote the outcome at the highest possible level. Starting Stand Alone followed this process exactly, and I built a network of willing people who believe in my idea and vision, and who work with me to build it.
Fast forward five years or so after my graduation, and I started an MA in writing. This led me into journalism and writing features for national newspapers around the topic of dysfunctional family. It was a niche that kind of found me, as I was becoming more direct in my expression of my own circumstances and my family estrangement. Although my time with a counsellor at Brighton was useful, I still did not feel I could be completely open with the close people in my life about my family situation.
In one particular piece, I wrote more directly about myself and this concealment, and I received so many emails and letters from people who were going through the same. Many of them told me that they had thought that they were alone in experiencing estrangement from their family. I felt therefore that the dialogue really needed to grow – and awareness improve. Starting a charity felt like the most natural vehicle to improve that voice. The charity now includes a focus on students who are estranged from their family because the founding trustees and myself received a lot of letters from students who were really struggling without family capital to rely on: students who were becoming homeless over summer, struggling for a guarantor, or who, like me, felt different, isolated and alone.
What does the pledge mean for estranged students attending the University of Brighton?
The Stand Alone Pledge is a campaign we started in October 2016. It encourages universities to build support for students who have no family support in four key areas: mental health, accommodation, finance and outreach. For estranged students at Brighton, it now means the university is developing better financial support over the summer break, as well as accommodation all year round. The Vice-Chancellor has also committed to meeting a group of students in this position, who can help feed their voices into the development of support services as well as contribute to awareness raising throughout the campus. We really want no student to feel they are suffering alone with family estrangement.
How long did it take you to set this up?
Stand Alone is four years old in November – so not very long! It has been a completely life-changing few years.
How does it make you feel signing the pledge with your alma mater?
I am so proud that the University of Brighton has engaged with The Stand Alone Pledge. Thirty-two institutions have made the commitment so far, but this one was particularly special. It was a really big buzz to read the letter from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Debra Humphris. Brighton has such a diverse population of students, with over 100 estranged students. Estranged students may be a strong bunch, and many of us have a good sense of survival, but we really need that extra support and a bit of understanding to help us to truly achieve our potential.