Harlem first found out about IntoUniversity through her Primary school, when teachers started sign-posting students to the new IntoUniversity Lambeth (now Kennington) centre for Academic Support.
“We would walk as a group and we would get there earlier than the doors would open. There was a park directly opposite, so we would go to the park to play and then someone would wave at the door when it was time for us to go in.
“The physical location [of the centre] was important because it was part of our local community. It was across the road from the park that we all played in on the weekends. It was around the corner from the school that we all went to and where all of our houses were. I think for a lot of us that made a real difference that we could walk there, that all of our family knew that we were safe. It became, you know, you’d walk past on a weekend like, oh, that’s IntoUniversity and so in that way, it was really special.
“I think I opened my SATs [at the centre], which seemed really insignificant now, but at the time was like the biggest deal ever. And I remember opening them with Laura [IntoUniversity staff member] and we sat there on a bench and I had the envelope and asked her to do it. So dramatic, honestly. And I did fine. I was going to the Secondary school I wanted to go to. But I think that moment sticks with me just because I was so worried and nervous and I had someone to sit with me.
“It was a really inviting space where we could all be ourselves. Obviously it does what it says on the tin; it is about aspiring to university, but all of our talents and all of our interests were valued and spoken about. I had friends that wanted to be actors or musicians and the staff were really keen to talk about those things too. It wasn’t just about university. It wasn’t just about homework. It was about who we were as individuals and what we wanted to do and who we wanted to be.”
Over ten years, Harlem was supported by IntoUniversity, through Academic Support, holiday programmes, mentoring, trips to universities, university applications and much more.
“I was told by multiple members of staff that I could do exactly whatever I put my mind to, even when I found things really, really difficult. I loved academics, but I didn’t find everything really easy. And I would have days where I would sit down with my work and be like I can’t do this, I don’t want to be here. I’d feel really stupid and the patience they had at the time made me feel like I was worthwhile, made me feel like I deserved to be there, that I could do it. And it didn’t matter how long it took or how many times they had to tell me how to do an equation.
“I had two different mentors [while at IntoUniversity]. One was specific to Oxbridge, so we worked really solely on my Oxbridge application. And those people putting time into you really does make you feel good, like these people don’t have any kind of real reason to support you other than that they do care and they do want you to succeed.”
Harlem was determined to go to a university that offered her exactly the experience that she wanted.
“I think the reason I could take so much ownership over those decisions was because I had been speaking about it for so much time beforehand and I understood what it required. I knew what I needed to do to get to where I needed to get to. Obviously I had support at school as well, but I think having all those initial conversations [at IntoUniversity] when you’re in Primary school, when you’re in Secondary school meant I had the confidence and the autonomy to make those decisions. I think all of those skills were nurtured way before I even came to doing the application.
“I remember lots of my friends when they found out about the universities I was applying to, they were like, that’s not a place for us. There are not many people like us that go there. And I thought, well, I’m not going to listen to that. It might be difficult for many different reasons, but I really want to go. The course is really good and it’s a very well-respected university.”
Harlem went on to study at Durham University, with the aim of becoming a Lawyer. As she came to the end of university, she had a change of heart.
“I realised very quickly as I was rounding up my time at Durham [University] that corporate life was not for me. I had always been told I’d be a good teacher and that I want to be a teacher. I’m quite stubborn, so I said no. Lo and behold, I realised everybody had a point. I applied for some teacher training courses, I got on the course and now I am very much involved in education – obviously in my job [as a Reception Teacher], but also I’m very much involved now with IntoUniversity on the Advisory Panel.
“It’s probably partly because of my contact with IntoUniversity too, having done work experience with them and seeing how it works on the other side. You don’t really realise as a student how much work goes into it. How tired you are after a day of workshops and then having to do Academic Support. [As a student] I’d just rock up and we would have a fun time. I have a new appreciation; I was grateful before, but now I’m like, wow.”