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Arrival day is a milestone that’s complicated for care leavers

Many aspects of the day of arrival at university are complex for students who are care leavers. Claire C Johnston tells us more.
This article is more than 1 year old

Claire C Johnston is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield

Katie Ellis is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield

Amid the buzz around Freshers week and the start of university, “arrival day” looms large.

For most students preparing to live away from home for the first time, the day that they arrive at university and move into their accommodation is a big step. It marks a significant stage, not only in their journey through Higher Education, but in their transition to adult life. Our research explored this milestone with care experienced students. The picture we found was complex.

As any new student will confirm, the build up to Freshers week can be both anxiety-inducing and exciting. One of our participants describes her sense of anticipation on arriving at university for the first time:

I genuinely cannot forget that day. And it was a sunny afternoon, basically my family drove me up all the way … I was looking forward to it because, I don’t know, it’s university, I was like – Oh my God, it’s my first time away, being away from home.” – Agnes

Not all care leavers have the same experience. Our research reveals a different perspective on the first day of university life: characterised by feelings of isolation, stress and frustration. For those without close ties to carers and family members, moving to university represents yet another hurdle on their path to getting a degree. We launched this short video, which follows one care experienced student on her journey to university, and captures some of the challenges faced along the way.

Transport nightmare

In the first few weeks of September, newspapers and student blogs are filled with ‘top tips’ for new students on what to bring on moving in day: sets of bedding, crockery and kitchen gadgets feature highly. For many of our participants, it was impossible to feel so well prepared. While some students are struggling to fit a mini fridge and toastie machine into the boot of their parents’ car, many care leavers are making long journeys on public transport with everything squeezed into a suitcase.

Several of our participants had to make the difficult decision to leave belongings behind, knowing that their foster parents and carers might have to discard them to make space for new residents:

It was just disappointing. I’d looked forward to moving to uni and I didn’t have anything to move in, didn’t have anything to unpack, didn’t have anything to put up on the walls, didn’t even have a TV to watch. I didn’t even have food at the time.” – Craig

Feeling alone

Over 40 percent of our participants were no longer in touch with any of their previous carers. Lacking this support marked them out as different on arrival day, when university halls are full of parents and family members helping students move in and do the first big shop. Several participants described how isolating this was:

It was proper embarrassing because everyone else – mums and dads were coming in and taking them up…I’m right at the top, there’s no elevators, I’m honking up these three flights of stairs, making trips and trips and trips. So it wasn’t a good start.” – Marcus

I had a cry because everyone was with their parents and it was really like overwhelming. I just was like well, I should have my parents here. I don’t.” – Dawn

Reaching out

Arrival day creates a first impression of university life that influences how well students settle in. Instead of leaving it to chance, universities can contact care leavers, and other widening participation groups, to check they have the transport and assistance they need.

One participant described how her taxi driver noticed she was on her own, and stepped in to help:

He was really friendly, he spent more time with me than he needed, like, he waited til I picked up my key and then he was with me in the process of trying to find which building it was… taking it all up for me as well” – Connie

This, and many other similar stories, revealed missed opportunities for universities to genuinely welcome care leavers into university life, and set the tone for a positive experience of higher education.

Welcome Pack

One or two participants mentioned the small gestures their university made that had helped them feel settled.

Uni makes it easier because they give you like all these opportunities for how to get settled in, they gave everyone a pack when they moved in…washing tablets and so on” – Chaman

Bedding, basic crockery, cleaning products are all Freshers week necessities, but can be expensive difficult to transport. Offering these items to care experienced students on the first day is a gesture of support that shows commitment to their wellbeing. Some universities have introduced schemes offering a personalised welcome pack to their care experienced students. Chris Hoyle explains why this is an approach taken at University of York:

A welcome pack is about more than just the usefulness of the physical items that are given, a welcome pack is about that feeling of being welcome, of knowing that this institution is a place that will recognise your circumstances and provide you the tailored support you require to thrive – from the very beginning. We also put the bedding on the bed, with a chocolate on the pillow” – Chris Hoyle, Management information analyst, Widening participation evidence and evaluation, University of York


One way of ensuring you don’t feel alone on arrival day, is to make friends and connections beforehand. This can be important for those who don’t have the safety net of close family ties, or a family home they can pop back to for weekend home comforts:

It was quite a scary experience. But because I’d been to like open days and stuff here before and I knew a few people on my course because we’d set up like a Facebook group beforehand, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been” – Willow

Universities can support students by facilitating meet ups or online forums for care leavers, and others arriving alone.

These small changes help care experienced students hit the ground running and get the most out of Freshers week. Care leavers bring with them unique life experiences, resilience and determination. Yet they face barriers most other students don’t have to think about. In a context in which 50 percent of care experienced students seriously consider dropping out of their course, it is important that universities consider their approach to care leaver welfare from day one.

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