Edinburgh is an extraordinary place. To make it accessible for all, the University offers initiatives, funding, placements and societies to widen participation and help students get in and reach their goals once here. Sin-Wa Loi and Carmen Hesketh share stories of how tapping into these resources enhanced their time as students and beyond.
A quest for more opportunities
Sin-Wa Loi spent her childhood in a small Scottish town with her mother and two sisters. Having family in Macau, Asia, made her keen to find “something different, more dynamic” to the rural calm she was used to when growing up.
The opportunity came as she was considering her next steps after school.
“When I was applying for university, I wanted the chance to be exposed to more opportunities,” she explains. “To learn more, grow more and access opportunities that weren’t there when I was younger. I just wanted to see what I could achieve and achieve as much as I could.”
Reputation, facilities and people
Sin-Wa’s sister would often talk of her desire to study subjects such as medicine and chemistry at Edinburgh, which sparked her own initial interest in the University.
“That’s how I was first introduced to Edinburgh. After further research, this was the institution that drew me in the most,” she says. “At first, it was because of the reputation, the well-equipped facilities and events they held, but then I realised that it’s also a bit to do with the people that are drawn to the University. It was how everyone in my hometown held the University of Edinburgh in a high regard and also the people I met during the Open Day, which helped me confirm my decision to go to Edinburgh.”
She admits that on arrival she felt out of place and that being “basically a Chinese girl in ethnicity but raised in Scotland” was a little “confusing”. However, discovering the large international student population on campus soon helped her settle in: “Then it was amazing that there were all these people more like me who I could interact with and connect with.”
An insight into the future
While studying accounting Sin-Wa was keen to take advantage of the opportunities available to enhance her degree and came across the Insights programme. The initiative helps widening participation students develop career skills and make connections with Edinburgh alumni working in a range of sectors.
“The Insights programme was one of the first things that I completely leaped at,” she says. “We got to do workshops that focused on developing our skills for when we got a job and how we would engage in a professional setting, which was completely new for me. I also got the chance to interact with different people who I wouldn’t have met before and that was something I found really exciting.”
As someone who always felt she was “a bit shy” Sin-Wa found the programme helped develop her communication skills through writing and sharing blogs, and meeting and interacting with graduates: “I realised, oh, I can hold a conversation – this is a massive improvement to when I first started!”
The Insights programme gave Sin-Wa real-world experience of what it would be like to work at one of the big four accounting firms with a visit to Ernst Young (EY).
“I actually got to meet someone who was working within the FinTech field and they introduced us to different developments taking place and what the company is utilising to make changes within the field and to help their clients,” she says. “I found that fascinating. I remember them talking about AI and I was like ‘this is real!’ I read up on it afterwards and that is how I became more interested in financial technologies.”
Channelling her new-found enthusiasm, she applied to be the treasurer of the student FinTech Society at the University.
“I just saw it as a great opportunity to apply some accounting skills that I got from my degree but also learn more about FinTech,” Sin-Wa explains. “I ended up holding a few workshops on blockchain and cryptocurrency. We got to arrange different speaker events with help from the Business School and the Edinburgh Futures Institute. We also did some socials as well so we could meet other students who are also interested in this field and it was just an amazing experience.”
The experience has been transformational for Sin-Wa and has helped to set her on the path towards her future career: “It was really the Insights programme that sprung off this interest in EY and financial technologies, which led to taking part in an EY panel and then the spring week in second year, followed by the summer internship in third year. After the internship I managed to get fast-tracked for the graduate scheme. I got an interview for that, which was definitely a good experience and a bit nerve-racking. From there I managed to get a graduate job offer.”
Finding financial support
Funding can be a major hurdle for prospective students. To ensure they have the chance to excel, the University offers a range of support, including scholarships.
For History graduate, Carmen Hesketh, gaining a scholarship opened the door to studying at Edinburgh.
Like Sin-Wa, Carmen lived with her mum and two siblings. Although fond of her home town in Bellshill near Glasgow, she too was keen “to try something different” and was encouraged by her mum to go to university.
“Edinburgh was the perfect place for me because I loved the history of the city,” Carmen explains. “It was far away enough to be interesting and exciting but close enough that I could see my family regularly because that’s something that is very important to me.”
To fund her dream of studying in Edinburgh she took on a part-time supermarket job at 16, working 20 hours a week in addition to going to school and studying. As well as putting some money aside, Carmen also gained a scholarship. The additional funding meant Carmen could enjoy the benefits of staying in accommodation in the city.
Making the most of the city
“I was very lucky to get the kind of funding I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to have afforded to live in university accommodation, especially one with an en-suite because that was what I needed for my disability,” she explains. “I have a chronic bowel condition, so the thought of me having to share a bathroom with people I don’t know was really anxiety inducing.”
Being able to afford to live centrally was important to Carmen: “To get the most out of the University of Edinburgh experience you have to live close by, otherwise you can feel quite alienated. There were a couple of people from my home town that went to Edinburgh and commuted and I don’t think they got the same experience that I did living in the city.”
The additional financial support has also played a vital part in helping Carmen pursue her career, and meant she could take on a role in an Edinburgh museum.
“I was in a very fortunate position because of the funding. I could actually pursue jobs, like my role at the Museum on the Mound, to boost my experience in the heritage sector rather than just to survive financially,” she says. “The job has really made my experience and has cemented that I really want to work in this sector. I don’t think I’d be where I am now and have the ambitions that I have without that job.”
On the right path
Having originally planned to be a teacher, the experience of having access to the many museums in Edinburgh gave Carmen the confidence to pursue a Masters degree after graduating in 2020: “I was job searching for quite a while but then I got an internship at the National Library of Scotland in access and outreach. That was great work experience before I eventually started the Masters.”
“For the Masters, I did a digital exhibition as part of a group project on using art for therapy and mindfulness using the University’s art collections,” she continues. “I’ve never had any curatorial experience before because it’s really hard to get, so it has been the perfect opportunity for that.”
With a keen interest in working class history, women’s history, LGBT history, in particular HIV/AIDS, she is now looking ahead and is keen to pursue a PhD in this area.
“You don’t really see the history of HIV and AIDS represented in museums and galleries even though there’s actually quite a big Scottish history of HIV and AIDS,” says Carmen. “That history often gets ignored because these are marginalised groups that often get affected by these conditions, so I’d really like to continue to study that because it’s a really underdeveloped research area.”
While keen to invest more time on her love of research, Carmen’s vision doesn’t end there. Her passion for curation and making museums, particularly small-scale ones, accessible to all is her ultimate goal.
“Smaller museums are those kinds of places where if you’re a curator you’re kind of expected to do everything,” she says. “But I really like that idea and that every single day is different and you’re getting to have an impact on all areas of your museum and your local community. That would be the dream job really, to work as a curator in a really small local museum.”
Interviews by Claire Simpson, Philanthropy Communication Manager.
Photography by Sonia Mullineux, Head of Alumni Communications.