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Fergus Cleary

Fergus Cleary Head of Design

Be Inspired Series

Paul Cassidy

Student Support Outreach Advisor
University of Ulster

What does your role involve?

Designing policies and protocols in relation to students coming from a background of care to study at the University of Ulster. This is aided by developing structures and delivering services that enable young people to reach their full potential as students.

I support students on all four campuses of the university. Externally, I work with the Leaving and Aftercare teams in the Trusts, NI Fostercare, the Fostering Network NI and other charitable organisations whose aims complement our commitment to support the needs of young people.

In 2009, we became the first university in Northern Ireland to be awarded the Quality Mark from the Frank Buttle Trust for our commitment to support young people in care.

How did you get into the position in the first place?

My previous experience working within a community environment and involvement in setting up outreach projects were significant contributory factors.

I have always worked in support environments and the position appealed to me as it was something fresh and I was fully aware of the rewards it would bring in the long term for many young people.

Did you always want to work in this sector in some capacity?

I had never thought of working within this sector before, as my formative career years were spent working in the voluntary/community sector which has always been an ‘outsider’ in terms of the public/private sector divide. However, I love working in higher education and with the economic challenges that surround us, I am thankful to be working within any sector at the moment!

What training or previous experience do you have that has helped you in your current role?

My past experience has helped immensely in dealing with the outreach nature of my job. In past roles, I have set up outreach centres for community organisations regarding welfare rights projects and adult learning.

I also worked with social services teams at Altnagelvin Hospital to set up an outreach project that provided advice and information to patients. This is now a welfare rights service run by Macmillan and is now established in most hospitals across the province.

I have also worked as a funding advisor to students who are in financial difficulty and helped prepare students on benefits to shake off benefit dependency and assisted disabled and incapacitated people in advice and tribunal representation.

What is your organisation's role in the local community?

Through its Widening Access and Participation Scheme, the University of Ulster operates a range of support policies aimed at opening university life to people of all backgrounds, particularly those who have missed out on earlier education, or think that university study is beyond their capabilities.

We work closely with Fostering Network NI and with schools, community groups and individual young people to reassure them that higher education is a viable and worthwhile step for them and also inform them of the wide-ranging support available to them from the university.

This support includes:

- Pre-entry correspondence with undergraduate applicants, who have spent time in care.

- A pre-entry appointment with the Student Funds Administrator, to discuss individual support needs.

- A £500 annual bursary paid before Christmas, on top of funds already available to each care leaver under the university’s current support schemes.

- Accommodation for 52 weeks of the year (if required).

- One-stop access to advice, counselling and other services as required and an on-going point of contact throughout the young person’s time at university including on-campus night support assistants.

And how does your role fit in as part of this?

My role advances the university’s commitment to young people in care through the Widening Access agenda and increases awareness of direct services to students through Student Support.

My goal is to raise awareness of the attainment of higher education for young people in care. This is best achieved with outreach work and informing carers, guardians, voluntary and statutory bodies of the benefits of preparing young people to think about university from as early as 12-years-old.

A lot of my work is ‘on the ground’ – visiting and talking to young people who are in the care system and encouraging them to consider higher education.

What sort of personality and qualities do you need to do your job successfully?

Recent figures show that only 7.6% of relevant, former relevant, and Qualifying Young People in NI go onto higher education. In the UK in 2003, the figure was less than 1%, so there has been progress made.

To continue increasing these figures collaborative partnerships have to be made with all interested parties. Key to this is having the ability to use effective communication skills and interpersonal skills when dealing with people and the organisations that they represent. If I didn’t have effective communication skills I’d be unable to continue with these partnerships.

What are the biggest rewards of the job? And the biggest challenges?

The main challenge is to increase participation for young people in care in higher education. We offer residential summer schemes to 15 to 18-year-olds at Magee and Jordanstown. The aim of these weeks is to plant a seed in their head that university could be an option for them.

Allied with the support of the Fostering Achievement Project, these young people focus on academic attainment after the events.

It is often the case that some students have difficulties with the transition to university. The University of Ulster’s Student Support service understand the needs of these students and assists them through any difficulties they may encounter.

Often this can become a challenge, but helping a student overcome their difficulties often brings the most reward.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Career wise and in life in general, the best advice I have been given is to treat everyone with respect and do not prejudge anyone.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do the same job?

Be yourself, treat people with respect and always conduct your day with a smile on your face.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

Switching off from work with my family. I also enjoy watching local football, (not the overpaid nonsense) and playing the game very poorly on a Sunday morning with my fellow over-the-hill friends.

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