Kerrie in her academic gown, ready for Matriculation 2022 alongside Girton's hallKerrie Portman with permission for Varsity, Quintus Lollius Urbicus / Wikimedia Commons

Kerrie is a care leaver, who at the time of setting her sights on Cambridge’s new Foundation Year, was homeless and had dropped out of university during the pandemic. “It was a source of hope”, says Kerrie, reflecting on when she first came across the programme in the summer of 2021.

Cambridge labels the Year as a “stepping stone”, but it is so much more than that. Kerrie describes how Girton College became home, and that she felt so utterly supported by the college staff, who she recalls were “proactive” and “compassionate”.

In October, Kerrie will be studying HSPS, and as we begin talking about her background, it becomes clear that despite this leaving several “holes” in her education, it has enhanced her understanding of social theory and political issues. “When I became homeless, I became a lot more interested in politics and social science and how to fix the bigger issues in life”. She tells me that she’s been able to apply real-life situations to the theories she reads about. She is hoping to focus on Politics and Social Anthropology when she becomes a fully-fledged undergraduate.

Of course, Cambridge is so much more than its academic side. From friendships, to accommodation, to clubs, there’s a lot that goes into fitting in here that can’t be timetabled or marked. Kerrie’s main passion is cheerleading, and she fondly remembers how her tutor immediately put her in touch with a fellow Girton cheerleader so that she could join the club and make new friends. She has also dabbled in pole fitness, Cambridge University Labour Club and the Girton Feminist Society.

“I’m a care leaver, so I don’t have a family I can live with over the holidays”

Kerrie points out that individual experiences of the Foundation Year are dependent on the college, and she has nothing but positive reflections on Girton. “It was my first choice,” she says. “They’ve always been incredibly supportive, both when it comes to me asking them specifically for help, and also that they’re aware when I’m having challenges – they’re really good at offering proactive help and practical solutions that I didn’t think were possible.” She explains, “I’m a care leaver, so I don’t have a family I can live with over the holidays. And without me even having to ask, my tutor arranged for me to stay in Girton.” From her college family, to being able to stay over the summer, there are many reasons why Kerrie feels that Girton College has become her home.

When Kerrie talks about the Foundation Year, it seems that the academic and the pastoral go hand in hand, something that the wider university could certainly learn from. She talks about the challenges she has faced in the education system as an autistic person, and how she worried that, once again, her needs wouldn’t be met and that the programme would prove to be “tokenistic”. But this was not the case. “Sometimes with my autism, if I get overstimulated, I find it quite comforting to sit on the floor. I’ve had issues before where teachers don’t really like that and they just won’t let me, so I’ve just not attended class or been so uncomfortable that I can’t concentrate. But if I ever felt that, I could just go up to the teachers I had in the Foundation Year and say I was feeling a bit off and ask if I could sit on the floor. And first they would make sure I was okay and then they were perfectly fine with it.”

“I didn’t really feel like I fitted in here, and I didn’t have anywhere else where I fitted in anymore”

Having her needs understood has made all the difference. “If people don’t make those relatively small adjustments, then I feel I can’t go to school if I’m having an off day. Because I knew if I needed adjustments like that I could always ask, then I felt able to go even if I was feeling a bit off.” Kerrie’s account of how she’s been treated by the Foundation Year teaching staff shows that allowances for autistic students both can and should be made.

In Kerrie’s words, the teaching staff were not merely “doing their job”. “I always felt that everyone who worked on the Foundation Year genuinely wanted us to succeed and cared about our wellbeing, which was a really lovely feeling.”

Despite not wanting to detract from the positive aspects of the programme, it was important to gauge what could have gone better. While Kerrie enjoyed being based in West Hub, she did feel separated from other students doing similar courses who received teaching at Sidgwick Site. Another student I talked to mentioned that studying away from the libraries covering the Foundation Year’s humanities, arts and social sciences focus was far from ideal.


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Kerrie also brought up an issue that will resonate with a number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds – the juxtaposition between life at Cambridge and life back home. Kerrie describes being alienated from her friends: “when I started Cambridge, a lot of the friends I had from where I used to live suddenly started bullying me. I was really confused. I wasn’t expecting it at all.” Kerrie recalls a painful period where “I didn’t really feel like I fitted in here, and I didn’t have anywhere else where I fitted in anymore… It was only after Christmas that Cambridge began to feel like home.”

But overall, her experiences have been positive, and she speaks extremely highly of the Foundation Year. “It reminded me how much I love learning…it’s a really amazing opportunity, I’m so glad it exists and I hope that it stays around for a long time”.