Undergraduate student Marie-Ann Harvey at Wadham College. Photo by John Cairns

  Undergraduate student Marie-Ann Harvey at Wadham College. Photo by John Cairns

A passion for access

Undergraduate student Marie-Ann Harvey shares her journey from state school to studying Jurisprudence at Wadham College.

‘It’s been incredible; easily the best thing I’ve ever done,’ enthuses Marie-Ann Harvey when asked to describe her Oxford experience so far. ‘The work is hard, and you have to really dedicate yourself to it, but it has just surpassed my expectations in every way possible.’

Despite her obvious passion for life as an Oxford undergraduate, this wasn’t a future Marie-Ann had envisaged for herself growing up. ‘Only one other person at my school came here, and they were five years ahead of me,’ she recalls. ‘There was nobody I could talk to about Oxford, and everybody thought the same thing anyway – that it wasn’t really a place for us.’

At Wadham College, work has long been underway to change this perception. Since the 1950s, the college has been building a reputation as a beacon for fair access, pushing boundaries to make a world-class education available to anyone with the talent and determination, regardless of their financial circumstances, gender or ethnicity.

In 2012, thanks to support from donors, the college launched its Access to Excellence programme in order to further accelerate the pace of change.

‘It just wasn’t what I was expecting’

Marie-Ann’s first experience of Oxford came at the age of 15, when she joined a group of classmates on an access tour of Wadham. ‘We were told all about the college and its ethos. It was amazing; we were made to feel so welcome,’ she says.

Visits such as these are an important part of Wadham’s outreach strategy, helping to break down pupils’ misconceptions about the University. Marie-Ann agrees: ‘It was just nice to see people who were a lot like me; people who came from backgrounds like mine. I thought that was really wonderful because it just wasn’t what I was expecting at all.’

A couple of years later, shortly before UCAS application time, Marie-Ann’s class received a visit from a current Wadham student. It reminded her of her trip to Oxford, and how positive the experience had been. She decided to apply.

But even after being offered an interview, Marie-Ann was still unsure if Oxford would be a good fit. ‘I went to my interview thinking, actually, I’m not sure I want to come here after all,’ she explains. ‘But at Wadham they have students running the interviews, and there was a girl there who came from the next town over from mine and who had been to a very similar school. It was through talking to her that I realised, actually, I’m kind of in love with this university!’

Marie-Ann Harvey at Wadham College. Photo by John Cairns
   Marie-Ann Harvey at Wadham College. Photo by John Cairns

‘Academic excellence is found everywhere’

Marie-Ann’s story demonstrates the value of Wadham’s sustained approach to pupil engagement. Thanks to support from donors, the college runs a comprehensive programme of outreach visits, aspiration days, subject-specific summer schools and masterclasses, and works closely with teachers, pupils, parents and carers, in order to raise the aspirations of the very smartest young people.

This hard work is clearly paying off: Wadham is now home to one of the most diverse student bodies in Oxford, with just under 70% of its UK undergraduate intake coming from state schools – a figure expected only to increase with the arrival of Oxford’s first purpose-built access centre in 2020.

‘I think Oxford has this weird curtain around it, where people seem to think that the only ones allowed on the other side are very elitist or from private school, and it’s just not true,’ says Marie-Ann, now a third-year Law student at Wadham. ‘Academic excellence is found everywhere, and the idea that the college is actively looking for it in places where others aren’t is just really amazing.’

Marie-Ann is now a passionate advocate for outreach, and volunteers her time as a student access ambassador at the college. ‘I think it’s so important to show people that they deserve to be here just as much as anybody else,’ she says. ‘So the idea that I can maybe help someone else feel like they’re welcome means a lot to me. I don’t think you can underestimate how much it means to genuinely say to a young person: you could belong here.’


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