Starting university is challenging and can feel pretty overwhelming at the best of times. There is so much to think about and there will be so many new experiences awaiting you. And this year due to Covid 19 much of the tuition is likely to be online for some time and social distancing rules apply on campus. Hopefully though you are excited and looking forward to it.
If you are going into higher education without the support from your parents and maybe also your wider family, you may be wondering about things like: how to finance your studies, where you will live, how to make friends and fit in, as well as how to make sure you keep yourself safe from unwanted contact and interference from your parents/family, and how to manage your mental health and wellbeing.
You might already be living independently without any contact with your parents and maybe also other close family members, due to a permanent and irreconcilable breakdown in your relationship with them and you don’t have support from a local authority as a care leaver. In that case you would be classified as ‘estranged’. Or this is likely to be your situation once your course has started.If you are not sure if you are ‘estranged’ check the Stand Alone website for details.
What advice do estranged students who have been there give to new students?
One estranged student who felt as if they were the first estranged student to have ever gone through the process of studying in higher education created a Guide for Estranged Students to help other estranged students who will likely face the same issues, with some great tips including:
Recover all essential documents that may have been lost in the estrangement process.
If you are already estranged then don't use any email address or postal address that estranged family know about, as they may be able to hack into your accounts. Universities keep whatever addresses you provided in UCAS applications for years after so university may continue to send things to those addresses.
Ensure you have all the essentials for studying (equipment, textbooks etc), and living (bedding, plates etc). Some institutions offer to provide bedding, etc, sometimes for a charge.
Avoid contact with your estranged parents because Student Finance may think you are no longer ‘irreconcilably' estranged and you could lose out on your maintenance loan. Siblings / grandparents / other relatives seem to be fine, however.
Discuss evidencing your estrangement with the university too, and your status will need to be confirmed every year for Student Finance (see section below).
When you start your course, arrange counselling of some kind or just check-ups with the designated contact (see below): How is class? Workload? Made friends? Having something like that set up at the start and to use at crunch times such as exams, assessment deadlines, etc, could be very helpful.
How to handle the first few days/weeks: people often ask things like ‘did your parents drive you up? What do they do, do you have siblings?’ Best to expect this and prepare how to respond. Pretend that everything is fine or say you are estranged? Say you don't have family? Or be open and honest about your situation?
Plans for holidays, may seem far in the future but can be very isolating when everyone leaves to go home to family like for Christmas or the summer, or during lockdown. Again, there may be questions about when you are going home and what you will be doing, and why you aren’t going home.
There is also a UK wide group of current care-experienced and estranged students on Instagram and they have written a Handbook with lots of advice and lived experiences:
Support from your university
Many universities now have a member of staff who is responsible specifically for estranged students. Stand Alone charity has a list of those contacts on their website.
You can contact the member of staff directly and do have a look at the information on their website via the link, if provided.
Also, Stand Alone has developed a Pledge that universities and colleges can sign up to. In some cases it is a cooperation between the university/college and their Student Union/Association. It means that they recognise estranged students and have made a commitment to put in place support for estranged students. Though be aware that not all universities and colleges have the same level of support in place even if they have signed the Pledge. Has your university or college taken the Pledge?
Having a member of staff you can get to know and trust and who is there for you to contact at any time if you have any questions or issues while you are studying can be really helpful. You don’t need to tell them about your family experiences and why you are no longer in contact with your parents. What’s important is that they understand your support needs. They will provide you with information about what you might be entitled to and how to discuss your support needs. Apart from helping you with your Student Finance application, this could be extra financial support, help with finding and securing accommodation, finding your way around, having someone to speak to if you need emotional support or if you feel unsafe.
It is your decision entirely whether you would like a member staff in student support at your university or college to know about your situation in confidence. Or maybe you have a Personal Tutor or a mentor? They will work with you to sort out support for you. All of these services are accessible online so Covid-proof!
Here is some great advice from a university member of staff in student services:
"As the main staff point of contact for Estranged Students I would urge all applicants to highlight their estranged status when starting university. I know that some students can feel uncomfortable with disclosing their status as often estranged students making the move into Higher Education want to put their past experiences behind them as such, however, the range of support available to estranged students at university is developing all the time and without declaring status you may miss out on something that could really positively impact on your time at university. For instance, lots of universities now offer dedicated funding pots for estranged students to support them financially. Overall, as difficult as it can be, it really is worthwhile ensuring that your university of choice knows as early as possible about your estrangement".
If you’re worried at any point, do ask for help from the higher education provider you are thinking of applying to, universities and colleges have people in place to help support you, and should be familiar with circumstances such as estrangement – there shouldn’t be any judgement, just staff who want to help and support you achieve your best.
By Susan Mueller, HE Director Stand Alone
You can Follow Stand Alone on Twitter @StandAloneHE and @UKStandAlone