'It's about finding your own way'

Eve's return to education after 10 years

Eve Hines-Braham

Eve Hines-Braham is reading English at St Edmund’s College. She grew up in Birmingham and attended a comprehensive school and state sixth form before taking a break from education. A decade later, she completed an Access to HE course and successfully applied to Cambridge as a mature student.

I spent 10 years out of education after leaving sixth-form college, but studying at Cambridge was always in the back of my mind. From quite a young age, my mum told me that I would get to Cambridge - she is such a positive role model and always taught me to believe in myself. I went to a great primary school that really pushed us, and it felt like the sky was the limit. I think I’ve always held on to that work ethic.

I didn’t have doubts about my academic ability at secondary school, but I had to deal with a lot of distractions while I was there. At secondary school, I was bullied for being studious; I was the one who always had their hand up. Doing well made me a target, and it made me afraid of that side of myself to a certain extent - the ambitious side of me that wanted to do well, that knew I could do well. I went to a different sixth form, but the issues I’d had at secondary school meant that I’d internalised a lot of the negative conditioning I’d experienced there. Looking back, I did really well for what I’d experienced. But I had such high standards, it wasn’t what I wanted. My sixth form college was also an hour-and-half journey each way every day, which with hindsight probably wasn’t ideal. I felt tired and disillusioned by education and the education system. I decided to take a break and not apply to university - at that time I didn’t want to be in that kind of formal learning environment any more.

When I finished sixth-form college I worked at a primary school as a librarian, and then I travelled and did some volunteering in the arts. I worked at an office for three years, and I also worked in retail. And then COVID happened, and it opened my eyes. I realised I wasn’t really reaching my potential. I knew there was more for me, that I could achieve a lot more. I think I’d thought that settling for temporary and part-time jobs was a safer bet. But actually, that ambitious side has always been there, even in those work environments I’d put myself forward for training, I’d want to learn more. But that kind of life didn’t enable the progression I needed and wanted. The part of my identity that needed to have a career, to have something concrete, just wasn’t there in those sorts of roles.

St Edmund's College

St Edmund's College

St Edmund's College

I knew English was my strong point and that would be how I would move forward with my life. English was the path that I needed to go on. It was always my strongest subject. I’d studied English, maths, psychology, biology, French and film studies for my International Baccalaureate, but I liked the arts – English and drama. English was always something I loved to do. I always used to write, just for myself - it was something I enjoyed and felt was something I was really good at. And it helped my confidence to keep that going.

I wanted to apply to Cambridge because of its reputation for high standards, particularly in English. I’m very ambitious and I wanted to be somewhere where I would be pushed to achieve the most. It wouldn’t just be learning for a test, for the sake of it, it would be learning to enhance my understanding of English as a language, the culture and the literature. Learning to understand more about the ideology, rather than learning just for the sake of ticking boxes. I felt that Cambridge was the place to do that. I looked at the English Tripos and saw how broad the programme of study was, from the historical to the modern understandings of English. The historical side was something I was never really exposed to at school. I felt like I needed to understand the origins before I could fully appreciate what we call modern now.

Cambridge also felt like a safe environment, somewhere I could push myself. And I thought whatever happened would potentially be a part of the experience, so it didn’t feel that scary to me. For my younger self it was a bigger concern. When I left sixth form I worried about moving away from home and my family, that support group, and that’s why I didn’t go to university straight away. By the time I applied, Cambridge was something that I wanted to do for myself. I wanted to step out on my own and really immerse myself in the learning.

St Edmund's College

I found the access course online, but I got in touch with St Edmund’s - one of the mature student colleges at Cambridge - before I applied. I wanted to know that the qualification would be accepted before I applied to do the access course. They gave me the information I needed; they were very helpful! I did the Access to HE in English, Writing and Media course at the Manchester College. I was really privileged to have amazing tutors - they really helped to give me my confidence back. Even though I always had Cambridge in the back of my mind, I would not have applied without the support and encouragement from my tutors and family. After the first class I had, one of the tutors told me she was really impressed with my work. Having that positive feedback made the world of difference and reaffirmed what I already knew, but gave me the confidence to do something with that knowledge.

The access course was a whirlwind, but a beautiful whirlwind. My tutors nominated me for that year’s student awards and I won the ‘Greatest Achiever’ and ‘Student of the Year’ awards. This and being accepted into Cambridge really helped me to truly believe in my ability, the power of hard work and determination. My Cambridge offer was conditional on me getting distinction in every single module, for every piece of coursework. As part of my Cambridge application, I had to do an assessment, and I had to submit coursework. Although I did well in English at school, my IB results in other subjects didn’t reflect my ability, so I was really grateful for the opportunity to show the college my coursework, and to do the assessment and the interview – to show what I can do. I was nervous at the interview, but it was essentially a conversation, and I think that’s how people should look at it. My advice would be to see it as an opportunity to showcase your abilities and don’t think about it too much beyond that.

Finding out about the Cambridge Bursary really helped; it made me feel like there was support here, and that people were listening - that the University really wants the best for its students. Also, the college system means you don’t feel like you’re just a number. There’s more of a communal feel to it and I really value that, because it makes such a difference. I was anxious about accommodation to be honest, but the accommodation at St Edmund’s is really great. I got the option of whether I wanted to be in a unit with shared facilities, or be more self-contained. Some people want to have their own space, so it’s great if you’re given that option.

Because I’ve been used to a different world, I needed to get used to being here and taking things on a day-by-day basis. Even though I’m so happy to be here, it does take time. It has been a supportive environment, one of the things I wasn’t aware of before coming to Cambridge was the number of people available to support students - directors of studies, tutors, tutorial offices etc. If you need help there are a lot of people in the College who are there for you. And even if you don’t feel like you need that help, just knowing that they’re there makes a big difference.

I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds at St Edmund’s. The College feels very homely. It’s quiet up on the hill, but you can always go into town if you want to be in that kind of environment - you can always seek out the beautiful architecture. What I have here is exactly what I wanted. I can enjoy what I’m doing and take my time with it, rather than feel like I’m in a rush.

Everyone has their own Cambridge experience. As a mature student, I feel like it’s about finding your own way and being content. At times, I have struggled with feeling overwhelmed, but if I could give one piece of advice it would be don’t compare yourself to others who have had completely different experiences. Just appreciate your life experiences - they will enrich your time at Cambridge and bring new perspectives to your academic life. Being at Cambridge has helped change the way I think about myself, and about what is possible. Being here is shaping my future in the best way.

Find out more information on applying, and on the upcoming Cambridge Open Days.

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