At the age of 45, Jim Whiskins found himself at one of the lowest points in his life. He had been made redundant from his job as an engineer, and didn't know where to turn.
"I was a bit unsure of myself," he recalls. "I’d lost my confidence, to be honest with you. It just went out of the window. I had to reinvent myself.”
His options limited, he enrolled on a one-year access course at Fircroft College, a specialist adult residential college on the edge of Birmingham. Whiskins' aim was to go to university and then become a school teacher. As it turned out, he never left: he became caretaker, a job he held until he retired last year. Even now he's still a regular at the college, as a volunteer.
“The college did get me out of a bit of a life situation at the time, so I was always grateful for that,” he says, sitting in one of the college’s classrooms. An hour earlier, an all-staff meeting was convened in the same room to celebrate Jim being awarded the British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours list.
“When I got that letter, and I read what I got it for, I felt very moved. I was a bit shaken by it in some ways. It was a lovely tribute and an honour and privilege to receive it,” he says with a tremble in his voice. “That meant a lot to me.”
Whiskins was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to student pastoral care. He decided early on in his career at the college that he wanted to do more than the routine locking of doors, setting of alarms and raking of leaves. He wanted to be both a caretaker and a caregiver.
“You can’t always tell what impact you have on people,” he says. “So I thought [being named in the New Year's Honours List] was quite a touching. It showed that I not only did caretaking but also perhaps I’ve helped some people. And they’ve helped me too. It’s been a two-way process.”
Space to learn and reflect
Situated on the outskirts of Birmingham, Fircroft College was founded in 1909 by George Cadbury Junior, grandson of the chocolate company’s co-founder John. The college was set up to offer educational opportunities to some of the most disadvantaged and excluded members of society and the college continues with this mission today.
The college supports a wide-range of adults – many who will have struggled with homelessness, substance abuse, challenges around mental health – by offering them a room to stay in, three square meals and the space to learn and reflect.
After living on the college grounds for the best part of two decades, Whiskins now lives in a flat in nearby Bournville, the village built by the Cadbury family to house its chocolate factory workforce. Despite his new digs, the college still feels like home: “It’s not my second home, it feels like my first home, to be honest with you.
“When I came to the college as a student, I was told it would transform my life. It did – but not in the way I expected it to. It’s transformed it in a way that’s been a good journey. I’ve learned a lot here about myself and about the students.
“Because I was part of the household team, but I wasn’t in any particular team – I was sort of a little one-man band. So I managed to get to know everybody else – the admin, the academics, the management team as well – so I really spread my wings around the college in that sense.”
His first-hand experience of being a student at the college helped him in his role of supporting learners. “Because I was a student here and I’d gone through the process of being a mature student at the college I knew the place and I know the feel of the place. I know what it’s like to be a resident student, particularly at the college.
“All I had to do was read, write essays and do seminars and lectures. ‘Well’, I thought, ‘that’s not a bad lifestyle is it?’”
'The best year of their lives'
The turnaround in people’s lives that returning to education can provide, is proof of the enduring power of lifelong learning for Whiskins.
“I’ve known students to come here on short courses, to do things like self-development – a lot of them are very unsure of themselves, but after about three or four visits you see a change in people," he says. "You see them flourishing.
“When people come out of education after being out for a long time, it’s hard to know what’s expected of you. But once you start getting feedback from the staff and tutors it starts to grow.
“People come back and say it was the best year of their life. And that’s nice to hear that they’ve had a good year – although it’s quite a challenging year, I would say. Once you’ve been to Fircroft, you’re a Fircrofter for life. There’s no turning back, to be honest with you.”
From his own experience, Whiskins understands some of the struggles the colleges’ students have been through. “At one point in my life, I was homeless at Christmas," he explains. "I spent a month rough sleeping. So I know what it’s like to rough sleep, and I’ve met students who have come here and have lived on the streets, so I know what it's like. Waking up in the morning, you want to look normal and brush your teeth and comb your hair because you feel as though you’re sticking out like a sore thumb.
“I never ask students things, they just tell me. It’s about building up a trust. You can spot students who are a bit unconfident or shy and you build up some sort of rapport with them.”
Given the transformation in his own life, and the countless students Whiskins has supported at Fircroft, he does not hesitate in offering some words of encouragement to those stuck in a rut in their lives.
“Where are you now?” he asks. “Where would you like to be in five year’s time? Do you want to stay where you are, if you’re not happy where you are? In five years, you could be somewhere else. You could come here and do an access course and three years’ later you’ve got a degree and you could be somewhere else.
“You can’t always see it, but there’s sunshine on the other side.”