Celebrating Exam Success: Access & Outreach

31st August 2017

This is the second piece in the ‘Celebrating Exam Success’ news series, which brings you stories from Pembroke students who performed particularly well in this year’s exams. Each feature celebrates a particular aspect of life at Pembroke. This week we caught up with recent graduate Charles McGrath (History & English, 2014) and Maisie Vollans (Biological Sciences, 2015) Both have made a great contribution to the Access work at Pembroke….

Charles didn’t know much about Oxford University when he applied, he said: ‘The idea was first suggested to me once I joined the grammar school Sixth Form, having previously attended a secondary modern from Years 7 to 11. The whole notion of going to a university such as Oxford was completely alien to me, being the first in my family to attend university.’

Charles met Pembroke’s Access Fellow, Dr Peter Claus, at the National Archives in London, who spoke to his Sixth Form about the skills of an historian and the racial configuration of class in 1880s’ London. Charles recalls: ‘The lectures clearly had a tremendous impact, as I quickly went off and Googled Dr Claus, discovering he was a Fellow at Pembroke and decided to apply there.’

Throughout his studies Charles developed a particular academic interest in the Northern Ireland Troubles. ‘It was fascinating to analyse the deep-rooted social and historical causes for the sectarianism that fuelled the violence in the North from the 1960s to the 1990s. I especially enjoyed writing my extended essay on the extent of divisions within the loyalist movement in Northern Ireland, and deconstructing the monolithic view of the conflict as being simply between Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists.’

Whilst at Pembroke Charles was involved in welcoming and working with the young people participating in Pembroke’s Access programme. He remarked, ‘it gave me a core extracurricular commitment which balanced nicely with the often intense nature of the academic work and it made me far more confident than I was when I first arrived at Pembroke. Watching these students flourish academically form some of my fondest memories of College life.’

My belief that, regardless of socioeconomic background, anyone can achieve their potential with hard work and support drove me to become involved in Access at Pembroke. As someone from a low-income single-parent family, I’m acutely aware of the issues surrounding access to higher education, and the barriers imposed on those from these backgrounds which often result in highly gifted academics of the future feeling that university is simply not for them.

To those thinking of applying to Oxford, Charles would say: ‘don’t think Oxford isn’t for you. There will always be parts of life at Oxford that will be strange and alien in some way or another, but there will be other parts which will bring you great joy and fulfilment. I never in a million years thought I would be a graduate of such a world-famous university, but if you truly put your mind to it, anything is possible.’

Maisie is about to enter her 3rd year studying Biological Sciences, and has enjoyed discovering new areas of interest within her subject, ‘I’ve really benefitted from the broad nature of my degree: I entered Oxford thinking I was particularly interested in very small lifeforms, but I have turned into much more of a macrobiologist… I particularly enjoy learning about plant adaptations and animal behavior, and have recently done a research project on the learning involved in imprinting in ducklings.’

Unlike Charles, Maisie had the notion of attending Oxford in her head since she was young, ‘I was really attracted by the academic rigor of Oxford (particularly, the tutorial system), and the beautiful architecture. My school had an excellent access scheme, and I attended quite a lot of trips to Oxford throughout my secondary school education.

She continued, ‘I was really lucky to have seen Oxbridge as an option for the future from quite a young age. The experience that most encouraged me to apply was the Raising Aspirations summer school I attended at Cambridge. I think it was the final push I needed to give me the confidence to actually apply to Oxbridge. I chose Oxford in the end, as I wanted to study pure Biology, rather than Natural Sciences and I chose Pembroke as I was really interested in the areas of Biology that professors at Pembroke specialize in, and because it is a small and really beautiful college.’

Maisie has been really involved in the access work at Pembroke this year as the Access Officer on the JCR Committee, ‘In this role, I was the undergraduate representative for access, which involved things such as attending academic committee meetings, helping to organize and working at interviews and summer schools, recruiting students to help at access events and starting up a JCR Access Instagram account.’

She’d like to continue to contribute towards access work, ‘whether its having work experience students, or continuing to help at access summer schools…’ she continued, ‘working in access has made me more political: it’s encouraged me to think that the sum of small actions of lots of individuals can lead to a great overall impact.’

Here are Maisie’s top tips for applicants: ‘Have a good knowledge of exactly what the course entails – it’s so important to apply for a course that you’re really interested in – keep up with the news within Biology, and do things to extend you beyond just the A-level content.’

‘I got one really useful piece of advice when applying to university in general: make sure that you come across as interested, and interesting, which is something I found really useful when thinking about my personal statement and interview. Also, don’t be overly worried about the interview, as it’s an alien experience for most people!’

Find out about Pembroke’s Access work and our recent Access Week here.