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Opinion10th December 2015

Talented Maan off to Oxford – how Ark’s University Bursary Programme made the difference

It takes a special kind of resilience, determination and great teaching to go from being a political refugee to a place at Oxford University – but Maan Al-Yasiri had all three in spades.

Maan’s family is originally from Iraq, but moved to Syria to escape political persecution before Maan was born: ‘I have three uncles who were political opponents of the Saddam regime and one of them spent time in Abu Ghraib prison.’

Maan’s family moved to the UK in 2006 in search of better life opportunities and he joined Ark Putney Academy at age eleven. Five years later, his mother secured a promising job offer in Dubai and the family once again relocated. “The plan was that I was going to go to a private school in Dubai to finish my GCSEs, but the fees were incredibly expensive and my mum’s and step-dad’s jobs didn’t work out, so we couldn’t pay for it. I ended up studying for my GCSEs myself, without schools or teachers.”

Maan’s parents eventually made the difficult decision to move back to Iraq where their career options were stronger, but knew the best option for Maan was for him to return to Ark Putney Academy for Sixth Form. ‘Just a few weeks ago, the hotel where my step-father’s jewellery business is based was attacked by a car bomb. That was in central Baghdad, which is meant to be relatively safe.’

But it wasn’t only safety concerns that prompted Maan’s family to send him back to London. ‘It was also that I’d had good experiences at Ark Putney and knew they’d help me get the best results.’ Once again committed to doing whatever it took to get the best education possible, Maan lived with a family as a lodger while studying for his A-levels.

Maan set his sights on studying History and Politics at Oxford. He was initially rejected. “I didn’t even get an interview. I was completely devastated – I wanted a chance to prove myself at the interview at the very least. I told my teacher, Mr Davison, who left a voicemail at the admissions office. We think they hadn’t offered me an interview because my GCSEs weren’t as good as they would expect from an Oxford candidate.

“Mr Davison explained that I’d studied for my GCSEs on my own in Dubai without teachers and I got a call on the same day offering me an interview. It was such a relief and I was so grateful for that help.” In his interview, Maan impressed the admissions tutors and earned a place to study at Oxford’s Brasenose College. This July he received his A-level results, results both he and his family had sacrificed so much for: an A in English, an A in History and a B in Economics.

With his Oxford place secured, one would hope Maan had finally done enough to beat the odds. But for Maan, and many other students from low-income families, there is a massive financial hurdle right at the finish line.

The typical university student will graduate with £44,000 of debt; students cite cost as the biggest consideration in deciding whether to go to university. Recent changes to university maintenance grants and the student loan repayment threshold, as well as rising tuition fees could likely exacerbate this problem and deter students from lower-income backgrounds from applying to and successfully graduating from university.

Ark believes that every student, regardless of their background should have the opportunity to go on to university or the career of their choice. We are fortunate to have supporters who share this commitment and generously fund the Ark University Bursary Programme.

The Ark Bursary Programme provides vital financial support for our most disadvantaged students. The bursaries are aimed at high-achieving Ark students who have made a positive contribution to their school and community. These bursaries range from £3,000 for the first year only to £30,000 across the course, to help students with expenses such as accommodation and subsistence.

Maan applied for a Reuben Scholarship; a multi-year bursary for exceptional students who demonstrate high financial need. He will receive support for all three years of study. “Without it, I’m not sure that studying at Oxford would be feasible.”

Our donors have awarded bursaries to over 100 students, like Maan, totalling just under £500,000. Not only does this support transform the life chances for the recipients, but our bursary programme alumni raise aspirations of current students, as they see that despite the growing cost, going to university is achievable.

After Oxford, Maan hopes to join the Civil Service, train as a barrister or go into journalism. We have no doubt that whatever path he chooses, nothing will stand in his way.

Each year, the Reuben Scholarship Programme, Driver Youth Trust Bursary Programme and Marshall Wace Bursary Programme help talented Ark students headed for top universities, who might not otherwise be able to afford higher education, with expenses like accommodation and subsistence.

For more information on our bursary programme or how you might support Ark alumni, please contact Bridie Blower.