Why parents play an important role in university life

Never underestimate the value of parental support. Nick Jackson speaks to parents and children about studying for a degree
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'My mum gave me confidence'

Rachel Holdforth, 23, studied natural sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge. She is doing a PhD in biomedical materials at Cambridge.

"The greatest gift my mum gave me was the confidence to ask for help and find different ways of doing things. I was born with dyspraxia, so I have poor co-ordination and some orthopaedic problems. Day-to-day life can be difficult, but my mum was great in making me understand that it didn't make me less of a person to ask for help when I needed it. It gave me the confidence to be different.

"Some teachers thought I wouldn't be able to deal with the pace of Cambridge life, but my college was wonderful. It's been a brilliant experience for me."

Jennifer Holdforth is Rachel's mother. She works as an occupational therapist in Gloucestershire.

"It was tremendous when she graduated. One of the loveliest things I heard her say was, 'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my mum.'

"Being shy, I didn't want her to be, so I pushed her to talk to teachers if she wanted extra help. Two teachers were concerned that she'd chosen Cambridge because they thought the pressure would be too much. I listened and I thought, I don't think you know my daughter. She looks physically less strong but mentally she's very strong. She's very determined."

'I'm the first to go to university'

Amanda O'Brien, 21, studied law at Greenwich University.

"I was on holiday in Egypt and there was a terrorist attack on the resort we were staying in. I had a burst eardrum and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I'd just finished my second year at university. I'm the first person in my family to go to university, so it was a new experience. Now it felt like an afterthought. I could have died and here I was spending time getting in to debt. I was going to leave and get a job, but I went back.

I thought, I want to do this, so I should pay for it myself. I lived with my parents. I had three jobs in my first year. I don't regret going to university, but if someone had told me what it would involve I wouldn't have done it."

Trish O'Brien, 46, is Amanda's mother. She works as a teaching assistant for children with special needs in Kent.

"When Amanda came back from Egypt she was distraught, emotionally shot to pieces, in shock, scared. It was quite an awful time. She was very anxious about going back and people asking her what she had done over the summer.

"I found it quite hard, living with Amanda while she was at university. It's quite intensive having someone on a university course living with you. It's quite hard. It absolutely seems worth it now. But I wouldn't like to relive it. It's nice to be this end of it."

'She's never surprised me with what she could do'

Laura Dawkins, 27, studied English literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

"I was eight months pregnant when I sat my English A-level. I'd left school to do my A-levels at college, then I found out I was pregnant. I left home and was living on my own in a housing association flat, but I decided that I still wanted to do it.

"I didn't really like the college I went to. I didn't get on with my journalism teacher and I don't like being structured by someone else. Which is why Birkbeck suited me. Getting to Birkbeck was tiring, but I'd always come out of it revived. I needed the stimulating adult company. It's good to think you're doing something other than spending your time colouring things in with crayons.

"I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned so much. And I'm glad to set a good example for my son. Life doesn't stop because you have children."

Len Dawkins, 59, is Laura's father. He works as a lift engineer in Streatham, south London.

"Babysitting four days a week, for people our age, didn't come easy. But it was the least we could do. Laura loved that university. It was something she really wanted to do, something she always wanted to do. She always loved education. She's the only person I've ever known who's got excited about exams. I dreaded them. I never understood that; I'm a hands-on sort of person.

"She had David when she was 18 and moved out. She's never surprised me with what she could do. I'm very, very proud of her. It wasn't the easiest thing for her. And her mother was always proud of her, although they never saw eye to eye."

'I think I've found my calling'

Lianne Mortley, 23, is studying development

and sustainability at Kingston University.

"When I came to the UK I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I worked in environmental health at Camden Council and decided to do this course. Now I think I've found my calling. The fees work out as a little more than £10,000 a year, but it's definitely worth it. It is a bit difficult but it's the sacrifice I have to make. I work part time.

"Neither of my parents went to university, but they've definitely been supportive considering the financial assistance they have to give me.

"I definitely want to go home after my degree. Being here has been an interesting experience but a bit of a culture shock. In Trinidad it's more of a community, people work together."

Joan Mortley, 57, is Lianne's mother. She works as a midwife at St George's Hospital in Tooting Broadway.

"In Trinidad tertiary education is free, but she's open to more here, so I don't regret her studying here. When she chose development and sustainability I was surprised. But she's enjoying it so I'm happy for her. I always encourage my children to do their best.

"I encouraged her to do a degree from the first year we were here. But she was thinking about me, working so hard to pay the fees. I have to help her, but she works, so the full brunt of it is not on me."

'They were always there willing to help'

Jim Mariner, 23, studied journalism at Lambeth College and London Metropolitan University.

"I can remember sitting in an empty car park with my father after I was diagnosed with Aspergers in 1999. He apologised for anything unjust he had said or done about my attitude to education in the past. But they couldn't have done much more to help me; they were always there willing to help me any way they could.

I never had an intense yearning to go to university. I just felt my life would be mapped out for me and never thought about what would happen. When I enrolled on a journalism course on my mother's suggestion, I found I could combine my two passions of football and newspapers. I could actually do something I liked and call it work. That helped me concentrate that bit more."

Mariner is now looking for work through the National Autistic Society Transitions Project.

Liz Mariner, 55, is Jim's mother. She works as a project manager for a charity in East Dulwich, south London.

"James did well at primary school. It was only when he was around 15 that it became clear that he wasn't coping at school. We weren't sure what was wrong. When the diagnosis came through, we just thought, how will this affect him?

"At King's Hospital, they said people with Aspergers tend to be good with computers and James went on a computer course at a sixth form college, but his passion has always been journalism - he buys three newspapers a day. We wondered if journalism was something he could go into and whether or not he could cope with its pressures. And we worried that he'd get lost in the university system. But it was ideal for him. He grew in confidence.

"When he graduated we were absolutely delighted. It was absolutely fantastic that he'd continued with his studies and he did it all on his own merits."