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Entrepreneur and Budding Midwife from Coventry University Join 100 Faces Campaign

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The extraordinary success of students from Coventry University who were the first in their families to attend university is being highlighted in a new national campaign led by Universities UK (UUK).

The campaign aims to show the life-changing power of higher education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are facing more and more barriers to accessing university.

James Dornor graduated from Coventry University with a degree in automotive engineering after being the first in his family to go into higher education.

In the decade or so since, he has worked in the world of Formula 1, founded his own organisation called Driven By Us to support people in the automotive and motorsports industries, and even received an award from the prime minister.

His achievements have seen him chosen to be part of UUK’s 100 Faces campaign to celebrate those first-generation university students who have already taken that step and to encourage those thinking of doing so to take the plunge.

James said: “Going to university is quite a nerve-wracking experience. It’s going to a new area in the world, a new environment, and new challenges after doing GCSEs, then transitioning into college, and then going off to university. It’s quite an intense, short period of time.

“I definitely felt nervous going to university, and my mom was always mentioning I had to go, and it would be quite a proud moment for her to see me go to university.

“Anyone thinking about going to university, especially if you’re the first generation, should believe in yourself. If you have that one person around you who is supportive of you, believes in your ability, and is trying to encourage you to go to university, once you’re there, you can have a fantastic time and meet lots of people.”

Another Coventry University student among UUK’s 100 Faces is Michelle Poole, who is just months away from graduating and becoming a fully-fledged midwife.

Michelle’s parents had not attended university before she and her sister did so, with Michelle becoming a mature student when she started her course at the age of 34.

Michelle said: “I didn’t do well at school, so it was later on down the line when I realised that I wanted to have this career and decided to go back to college and gain my GCSEs and then did an access course, which gained me the position on the midwifery course.

“Because I’m a mature student, my view was very much that there would be a lot more younger people than myself, but actually it was quite diverse in terms of age and race. I think the whole experience was quite daunting, but definitely once I got my feet firmly into the university, I knew that this was where I needed to be for my future.”

The mom of two, who was nominated for a DAISY Award for the incredible care she showed to a couple who were told they might lose their baby boy, had this message for anyone who thinks university might be for them: “Have faith in yourself and take that leap of faith. There are a wide range of prospects and opportunities, and I think it would just be a case of going for it, and the only way that you can achieve those goals is by reaching for the stars.”

James and Michelle join famous names such as England footballer Beth Mead, Lord David Blunkett, and Nobel Prize winner Sir Chris Pissarides included in UUK’s 100 Faces. As part of the campaign, UUK carried out research that reveals the impact of going to university on ambition, with almost three-quarters (73%) of first-in-their-family students surveyed agreeing their degree gave them the confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter.

It also highlights first-generation students’ reliance on depreciating financial support, without which almost half (48%) of those graduates couldn’t have afforded to go to university at all – equivalent to around 1.1 million 24- to 40-year-olds in England and Wales. With the cost-of-living crisis continuing to bite, UUK is calling for the government to reinstate maintenance grants and increase support for future students.

Vivienne Stern, MBE, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “There are those who say that too many people go to university; I disagree, and these stories tell you why. In this country, you are still twice as likely to go to university if you are from the wealthiest background, compared to the least wealthy. That’s not right.

“The experiences of students who are the first in their families to have been to university tell a powerful story. I believe we have a responsibility to keep working to ensure a wider range of people in this country get access to the potentially transformative experience of going to university. For that to happen, we really do need to see an improvement in maintenance support to support those from the least privileged backgrounds.”

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