On course for the heights of Harvard

24th September 2010 at 01:00
Being in care has not prevented 17-year-old George Fraser studying at the top US university

Nine of the last 11 American presidents went to Harvard University. And so, this year, did George Fraser, a 17-year-old from Dundee who, far from coming from a privileged background, has spent the past nine years of his life in care.

This summer George spent seven weeks at Harvard's summer school, having won the chance to be funded through Who Cares? Scotland.

The charity provides independent advocacy, advice and support to children and young people who are looked after in Scotland. The seven-week course is a complete academic programme at university level, with 1,200-1,300 students attending from countries all over the world.

For George, it all began in February, when he was invited to apply to Who Cares? Scotland.

"I only found out about it two or three days before the deadline," he says, "and I just thought 'Wow'. I never thought I'd get the chance to do something like this.

"I just sold myself well in the application. I did my homework on Harvard and gave plenty of details about it in the application. Anyway, you've got to know about somewhere before you go there."

Graham Connelly, of Strathclyde University, is a board member of Who Cares? Scotland.

"Thirteen young people came forward. They were asked to write about what going to Harvard would do for them. The selection group rated applications and George was unanimously top," he says.

Because Harvard doesn't ring-fence applications, once he was successful in that round, he then had to apply direct to the university. This involved sending academic reports from his school (Grove Academy); a guidance report; and an essay on a book, marked by a teacher. Rather than focus only on academic achievements, the emphasis was on finding well-rounded people.

A month before he was to set off, he found out that his application had been accepted. "I was given details of the programme beforehand, what was expected and what facilities were there," says George. "I was also able to meet up with a Scottish student who had been there the year before, and ask her questions."

Cheryl-Ann Cruickshank, north-east regional manager for Who Cares? Scotland, says: "We set up this scholarship to highlight the very high aspirations we have for young people in care. In 2008, we conducted research looking at what success means to children and young people. We found that achievements of looked-after children weren't often celebrated or recognised. For George, this was a fantastic opportunity, and we are all incredibly proud of what he has achieved - not just the opportunity, but how he took to it."

Part of the criteria of offering the place to George was that he should travel unaccompanied. Once there, he stayed on campus, sharing with students from Canada, Hong Kong and Norway.

"I made friends with people from all over the world - Panama, Venezuela, Jamaica, Singapore," recalls George. "We are keeping in touch via Facebook and I have been invited over to Norway. Everyone was so nice and we blended together really well."

Students must choose two four-credit courses or one eight-credit course, with two three-hour classes running throughout the week, coursework, and exams at the end.

"I chose two classes - the American Revolution and the American Civil War. I had two classes on a Monday and two on a Wednesday. There was a choice of about 150 subjects. I decided to do something a bit different, rather than go for one of the subjects I did at school," says George.

Supported by the Carnegie Trust, Dr Connelly went to Boston to visit George half-way through the summer, allowing him to meet the dean of the summer school and put faces to the names of people he had been emailing for the past 18 months. It also enabled him to check that George was settling in well and see how much he was getting from the experience.

"My time at Harvard showed me a different way of life," says George. "It gave me more life experiences. I learned how to look after myself. I had to learn to do my own laundry, to study more, to budget, general life skills. I grew up a lot.

"I have just finished fifth year and I am now going to Dundee College to study HNC Civil Engineering. After that I will see what happens. I'll take one step at a time"

Dr Connelly sees this as part of a wider effort to bring opportunities to looked-after young people: "The Harvard scholarship is intentionally high-profile, but we also want to encourage young people from care to attend college and university summer schools in Scotland."

Heather Gray is chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, and a member of the Scottish Government's Looked After Children Strategic Implementation Group.

"This is part of our Reaching Higher campaign to promote higher aspirations for children and young people. We know educational outcomes for children and young people in care are poor. Highlighting the problem is important to encourage care agencies and education departments to take the necessary steps to improve these outcomes," she says.

"I think this was a good example on a number of levels. It was about more than just travel and education. It was about life experiences, catching dreams and aspirations.

"The support from Dundee City was great; we really worked together to make this happen and we hope to fundraise to send another young person next year."


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