A woman of substance

16th November 2007 at 00:00

When kiran Upadhyay arrived with her two children in Edinburgh from England in March 2004, she had nowhere to live, no prospects and no intentions beyond escaping difficult domestic circumstances.

After a 17-year marriage, she was suddenly a single parent living in a women's refuge in a strange city. She is now a first-year student at Edinburgh University, taking a degree in social work and the recipient of a bursary which is awarded to determined individuals who overcome significant barriers to complete their further education.

Ms Upadhyay, who lives in her family home with daughters Neelam, 15, and Hiral, 11, was nominated for the Helena Kennedy Foundation Award earlier this year by Stevenson College, Edinburgh, where she was completing an HNC in social care.

"Kiran is a remarkable woman who achieved a great deal during her studies at Stevenson," says Janis Stirton, the college head of section. "I don't know anyone who would be a more deserving winner. She'll make an excellent social worker."

Ms Upadhyay felt very honoured to be one of those put forward for the award by the college, and even more honoured to have won it. "I feel I have come a long way in three and a half years," she says.

That she is now "a different person", someone with "more confidence" and with "a definite purpose" is, she says, down to the excellent support and guidance she received from the college and from Shakti Women's Aid.

In Kenya, where Ms Upadhyay was born, she left school at 16. She worked in an accountancy firm before following her husband to England in 1988, where she found work in a supermarket checkout, then became a bank cashier.

"Social work was never in my mind until my experience in the women's refuge. I saw so many women like me and we shared a lot. I found very quickly that I began to think not of my own problems or circumstances but of theirs and of how to support them," she says.

Shakti Women's Aid found permanent accommodation for Ms Upadhyay and her daughters and gave her the emotional and practical support she needed to take a certificate in counselling at Stevenson College. This led the following year to her HNC in social care.

"The college was supportive from the start. They helped me believe in myself. They instilled confidence and knowledge and helped me develop purpose to the point of knowing now that I can be successful in my chosen career," she says.

It is apparent, though, that her choice is not simply a career: it is a vocation. "I know it's not an easy job, but if I can make some difference to someone's life, it'll be more than worth it. At college I did a placement helping to support adults with learning difficulties. I found it very rewarding working with them.

"I'd like to think I could be of help to women in a similar situation to my own both professionally and personally. Having been on the inside of a problematic situation hopefully gives me an insight - and the motivation - to be of help.

"I want my past experience to count as something positive both for myself and others," she says.

What struck her - and what motivates her in her chosen vocation - was the disempowerment she felt in her domestic difficulties. "I'd say to someone in the situation I found myself in, `Look, there is life after this. There is a lot you can do'. In such a situation your confidence goes completely, but the strength you have inside comes back when you remove yourself from it."

Ms Upadhyay intends to spend her bursary of pound;1,000 on a laptop computer for her studies, a computer she could not afford; and when she secures employment after her Honours degree, her first priority will be to take her two daughters on holiday to India, where her family originated. As she announces this, Neelam's eyes light up. She beams a big smile at her mother. "To India? Really?"

Ms Upadhyay laughs. "Yes, Neelam - to India - really!"

Three in a row

Kiran Upadhyay is the third successive winner of a Helena Kennedy Fouondation Award from Stevenson College.

In 2006, Christine Langlotz-Turner was nominated for the significant financial sacrifices she and her family made to enable her to return to full-time education. After recovering from difficult and emotional circumstances which had a huge impact on her family life, Ms Langlotz- Turner progressed from an open learning course to counselling and mental health courses at the college. She is now studying for a diploma in counselling at Strathclyde University.

In 2005, Claire Gilliland was nominated for the award when her family circumstances made it difficult for her to obtain part-time work alongside her studies. The HKF award enabled her to pursue her studies at Stirling University. She was the first member of her family to go to university.

"At Stevenson, we see many students who overcome great difficulties to gain a qualification and turn their lives around. Their commitment and determination are inspiring," says Susan Bird, the college principal and chief executive. "I'm very pleased and proud that the Helena Kennedy Foundation has selected our students three years in a row to allow them to further their ambitions."

- The Helena Kennedy Foundation was set up in 1998, following the seminal report Learning Works by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, which drew attention to the needs of adult learners throughout the UK.

The HKF's mission is to tackle injustice and social exclusion through education, by supporting disadvantaged students from the further and adult education sectors to complete their studies in higher education and move on successfully into employment.


Photograph: Alistair Linford.

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