I am not from a privileged background. I was born and grew up on a council estate in Sunderland, a deprived post-industrial city in the North East of England. The area suffers from above average unemployment, population decline and a general mood of pessimism and defeatism towards life. Having grew up in this environment, my chances of success in life were immediately lagging behind those from more privileged and middle class backgrounds. I began with few connections, a rough state school education and an upbringing which was unable to embed me with the professional experience, sophistication and diligent habits as to which Middle Class families develop and pass down through generations. In saying that, I express no resentment to my parents, who done the best they could for me in such circumstances, made great sacrifices and loved me as any parent would. My father is a taxi driver, his father (who passed away in early 2016) worked in the shipyards and through my maternal line my great grandfather was a miner who was killed in a colliery accident in the 1950s.
Such Industrial professions were the lifeblood of Sunderland, until they were all swept away through changes to the global economy in the 1980s, leaving the area with nothing, spiraling it into decline and leaving many in the generations who proceeded it disadvantaged. Because of my economic background, my school largely wrote off my prospects through unjust pre-determined estimates. I was only expected to achieve “C” grades at GCSE level, which meant teachers set that as an expectation and looked for little more. Most of those from the same economic circumstances as myself have not done remarkably well in years to come, as predicted.
But the first message that you should recognize today is this, there is no such thing as pre-destined fate. Although sometimes fortuna may render you unlucky and give others a head start, every individual and human being can develop the will and capability to challenge their circumstances and flourish. We can become agents to act and not be acted upon. Sunderland collectively suffers from a form of fatalism, a lack of will, a lack of fight and a surrender to the miseries piled on the area, creating a harsh and negative cycle which is hard to get of, passed from generation to generation. However, myself, despite all that stood against my favour, chose and willed long ago never to be bound by “fate” and be placed where society expected me to be. I would, despite everything, believe in who I was, believe in what I could achieve and never surrender.
This resolve in attitude made all the difference. I outperformed GCSE expectations and two years after leaving comprehensive school I achieved outstanding results in A-levels, winning a trophy from the Sixth Form that my name is still engraved on today. Not long later I found myself admitted to Durham University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. As this happened, it soon became evident that many of those I went to school with, even those judged far superior in terms of background and prospects to myself were left behind. I was just one of two people from my comprehensive school who reached Durham University, nobody went anywhere better. Although Durham was not Oxford or Cambridge, it was an against the odds achievement for someone from my background which was not to be expected.
To start Durham University was a portal to another world, a strange, sophisticated Middle class culture which I had never experienced growing up. The majority of those around me had came from wealthy, middle class families and were privately educated. Whilst my path to Durham was an uphill struggle against unfavourable circumstances, in contrast many were simply there having failed to get into Oxbridge and resented this fact. I even met a boy who had attended Eton college… These people around me possessed worldviews deeply polarized from my own, preaching a haughty bourgeois liberalism which could not be further removed from the patriotic working class feel of Sunderland. Furthermore, they had scores of connections. Many of them easily get work placements and internships with MPs, high profile organisations and so on. The University culture consisted of continual “formal”, middle and upper class style dinners, something I had never experienced before. The clash between my working class roots and this middle class aurora was deep, I struggled to fit into their more sophisticated world. I felt I was at an immediate disadvantage.
But having made it this far, I was not discouraged by the situation. I chose to learn from it than succumb to resentment. The biggest solution was to keep working hard, working with passion, motivation, determination and ambition. Whilst doing this, I chose to carefully monitor what the more successful Middle Class students were doing that made them do so well, to identify the qualities, skills and habits their parents have passed down onto them and likewise adapt them. For example, just little things like the habit of continually seeking internships and work placements (which they had been instilled with from birth, unlike me) and other things. This continued when I studied at the University of Hong Kong, another prestigious university full of students from successful backgrounds- Unique to even my own nationality, I learnt to adopt the diligent Asian work ethic (which dwarfs even the majority of young people in the UK).
As I have grown from all these experiences, I recognized my individual efforts have allowed me to catch up and compete with those from significantly better backgrounds. Consequentially, more privileged students have not outshone me in terms of grades or academic achievement and before I knew it, I was landing internships and incredible work opportunities as well. In doing so, attitude, ambition and determination became the root foundation every time. This is not to say it has all been a perfect journey, it is not to say that there have been no mistakes, setbacks or disappointments along the way; if I am to be honest, there were many and its not over yet. But defeat only comes through discouragement and I have always chose to pick myself up, keep trying and have confidence in the future.
All in all, I have broken the class barrier and broken the cycle of poverty, disillusionment and defeat which plagues my background circumstances. Even if you are further on in life than I am and achieved poorly at school, it is not too late to start doing well. It’s a question of who you want to be, what you aspire to become and how you will do it. It is not just dreaming, but being serious in how you make your dreams and aspirations a reality. It is not as complicated as it sounds, it can start with something simple, like picking up a book, choosing to learn something, or making a positive decision and sticking by it, because it will always lead you somewhere. For example, when I first decided in 2014 that I’d start learning Mandarin Chinese and that I’d pay for an extracurricular course to do it and then stuck to it (as other people paid and then dropped out), I was not aware at the time of the gateways it would open up in my life and where my efforts would take me (and will yet take it). Or, alternatively, when I decided one day to buy a book about North Korea and read it properly, again I had no idea what that would eventually offer me.
We don’t always see what’s ahead of us, but we do shape our lives through positive decisions and self-belief. Nobody is destined to be stupid, we can battle our circumstances, change them and succeed- Start now.