Our student community at Leeds is made up of very diverse individuals from different backgrounds but it is easy to assume a degree of similarity. The linear idea of finishing A-Levels and heading off to university at the ripe old age of 18 and coming home at the end of each term to your parents who take care of you is not what many experience, but what is often assumed to be the norm. Being an estranged student- a student who goes to university without any support from parents- can make university life very isolating. Indeed, surveys have shown 41% of estranged students have either suspended or considered suspending their studies.
I am estranged from my family due to bereavement, but there are a multitude of reasons why students are estranged from their families, such as relationship breakdowns or being a care leaver. This has made my university life quite isolating when I have seemingly been surrounded by students who, despite the guise of independent student life, are very reliant on their families for support. Many have been particularly reliant on familial support over lockdown, when more students than ever have struggled with their mental health and relied heavily on this support from emotionally charged zoom calls with Mum or Dad to a break at their home address to escape from the claustrophobic and intense student houses that many of us have found ourselves in this year.
Over the Easter break, I assumed less students would go home during the pandemic but the reality is, most still did. In that time, many did not have to worry about the trials and tribulations of student life such as how much pasta they had left, whether their clothes would dry in time for that night out and who owned the mug you accidentally smashed whilst drunk last night. There is an established expectation that parents of students during those breaks would take up those chores for them. For estranged students like myself who often remain in their term-time address full time, the situation is very different as we have to look after ourselves full time. My experience at university has therefore been particularly challenging.
One of the main issues that affects estranged students is accommodation. Navigating the student contracts can be extremely stressful as they require a parental guarantor, which I did not have. Estranged students additionally face the very real prospect of potentially finding themselves homeless, as some student rental contracts do not extend to the summer. The Leeds contract end and start dates also present a cause for concern as a night without a place to put my possessions is a stressful prospect. In general, as a student, having to move every year without a constant base has left me feeling ungrounded and led to struggles with my mental health.
Psychologically, making your student house your main home is very difficult. In Halls in first year, many are reliant on their families to help with the transition to university and this is very visible, as many have their parents move them in and visit or can return home. I was moved in by a very close family friend, but already felt like an alien. In second year, moving into my first student house with a group of people that I mainly did not know, I had to explain to them the emotional baggage that was a part of me so they could understand my position. However, I wanted more than anything to escape this and just lead a normal, carefree student life. Over Christmas time, many estranged students were in Leeds for the duration. Luckily I had a housemate who was willing to stay in Leeds for Christmas with me but for so many, they faced the reality of spending Christmas alone.
The summer months represent to many of us a break away from university and a return to where we are comfortable. But for other students, this could not be further from the truth and the image of spending the months of July-September fairly isolated, waiting for the student loan payment in September, represents a cause for anxiety and concern. However, there is support available. The Stand Alone Pledge, signed by many universities, including the University of Leeds, which commits to supporting estranged students with the issues mentioned above, such as through guaranteeing accommodation. The Plus Programme at Leeds tries to bring these students together through social events and the university provides a programme of events available to students who are in Leeds throughout the holidays. It is important to know that if you are in this situation, you are not alone and there is support available.
Despite this, I am still looking forward to this coming summer as I hope to meet others around Leeds who are in this position and experience a different crowd of people. Having to spend time in Leeds all year round has made me fall in love with the city, perhaps more than others. Whether it’s a walk by the canal, a trip to a town outside the city like Otley or a tour of the various climbing walls Leeds has to offer, there is so much to explore outside of the Hyde Park terraces that often confine us. I am very much looking forward to a summer of exploration!
A useful resource for estranged students can be found here: https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Guide-for-estranged-students-Final-Sept-20.pdf
Header image credit: StandAlone.org