Eve of a new opportunity

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Against the odds, a teenager from a small South Ayrshire state school has played football for Scotland, been to space school and now won a prestigious scholarship to an American university, writes Douglas Blane

On first impressions, Eve McTurk does not seem like a young woman who has just won a prestigious scholarship to an American university, in competition with students from the best schools around the UK.

She is thoughtful, quiet-spoken, mature beyond her 17 years and despite her accomplishments, which include playing football for Scotland, rather modest.

Nor is Mainholm Academy the kind of school that might be expected to produce a Morehead Foundation scholar. It is a small school in a deprived part of Ayr, with few natural advantages, a large additional needs unit and a 45 per cent free meal entitlement.

But there is more to the school and scholar than meets the eye.

"I first caught the America bug when I went to Houston with Careers Scotland's NASA Space School programme," Eve says. "The whole week was fantastic.

"One thing that sticks in my mind is the motto: failure is not an option."

With Eve's sporting achievements, this seems to be a story of a competitive, self-sufficient individual who takes on hard challenges and wins. The reality is subtler.

"I'll play any sport if I get the chance, even just a kick-about," Eve says. "If you're too competitive you ruin it for everybody.

"It's more a matter of being offered opportunities, I think, and being prepared to have a go. I enjoy trying different things. Winning is a bonus."

The Morehead undergraduate scholarship to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was another opportunity that came Eve's way, thanks to the efforts of Careers Scotland to promote it in state schools.

"Previously only Fettes College, Loretto and Gordonstoun had been involved," says Gordon McVie, the enterprise in education manager. "So we publicised it on our website and asked careers officers around the country to tell pupils about it.

"We interviewed candidates in Glasgow and selected three to go to the London board."

"Eve talked to me about the scholarship and I said she should apply," says Kate McKenzie, the guidance teacher at Mainholm Academy. "When she came back from London and told me about the other students being interviewed, I realised they were from top public schools. Eve wasn't fazed, though, and I knew that if she was treated on equal terms she could do it."

It was Eve's first trip to the capital. "I remember sitting on the hotel bed the first night, thinking 'I'm 17 and I'm in London on my own.' It was really exciting; jumping on and off the underground, shopping in Harrod's and Oxford Street, going to Buckingham Palace and the Natural History Museum.

"The interviews were tough, with a lot of political questions and moral dilemmas. I would answer one and that would lead to another one 10 times harder.

"When I said I'd like a space corps in Britain, they wondered if that was a waste of money better spent on education and health. I said you should always spend money on those, but having our own astronauts would inspire more people to study science and maths, which we badly need."

Eve intends to study science and maths in North Carolina, but she has yet to decide on a career. Neither money nor fame is her prime motivation, she says.

"Being an astronaut would be glamorous and it would be fantastic to go into space if you got the chance. But I would rather be the person who worked away for years designing the shuttle that put them there. It would be more of a challenge and more satisfying when you saw it fly."

Eve dates the beginning of her openness to new experiences to coming to Mainholm Academy, which had not been her first choice of secondary school.

Ms McKenzie talks of a bright, studious first-year pupil sitting quietly and getting on with her work "but looking sometimes as if she'd landed on another planet".

Eve herself says the school grew on her gradually. "I can remember in third year thinking to myself that I really liked it. It was a bit of a surprise."

The earliest new opportunities offered by the school were a weekend trip to France - "my first time abroad without my parents" - and extra-curricular activities such as football and badminton, art and, perhaps most valuable of all, debating and speech-making.

"That started in first year," Eve says. "It meant that when I had to talk or give presentations at space school, or during the selection process for the Morehead, I knew I could do it.

"Mind you, it's hard sometimes to get the right words when you're talking about yourself. It was interesting when we met the former Morehead scholars in North Carolina (during the final scholarship selection); they were confident but modest too."

While Mainholm Academy does not excel statistically, the school offers some advantages, says the headteacher, John Happs. "Teachers here are every bit as good as those in schools that do better in league tables, and a pupil like Eve probably gets more attention in a small school like this than she would elsewhere."

Eve agrees she has had plenty of support and encouragement from her teachers. "They've been really good at pushing me to achieve and coming to me with suggestions. The school maybe doesn't have the exam results but it has a great ethos.

"You can go up to more or less any teacher and ask for help, and that's not just me. Pupil-teacher relationships here are great."

Ms McKenzie, who has taught at Mainholm Academy for 30 years, agrees. "It's one of the things I missed most last year when I was off ill. I couldn't wait to get back. Pupils like Eve are one of the rewards of the job, but there are plenty of others.

"You get so much from the kids and parents, a lot of whom know me from when they were at school. So you can often sort out problems with a quick phone call."

Mr Happs believes parental relations are the key to widening opportunities for every pupil. "Parents in future will have very different memories of their own schooldays than our generation, and will find it easier to work with schools, which they won't see as hostile, authoritarian places."

The last stage of the scholarship selection at the university seemed pleasantly relaxed after the formality of the London board, Eve says. "It was a fantastic weekend. The weather was hot with blue skies, and Chapel Hill is flat, green and picturesque.

"We went to presentations by other students. I watched baseball and attended a maths class. There was a big party one evening - 14,000 people and a lovely atmosphere - to celebrate the university winning a basketball game.

"I remember thinking 'I could live here.' "

www.careers-scotland.org.uk spaceschool


What has inspired you?

NASA Space School. It gave me long-term confidence, made me want to try harder.

Where were you when you heard you'd been awarded a Morehead?

Sitting at my computer with my hair in a towel.

Can a scientist believe in God?

Yes. I go to church every week and teach at Sunday school. I went to church in North Carolina when I visited and felt quite at home there.

What are your interests outside school and sport?

Music, travel, art.

Your favourite work of art?

The First Step by Peter Howsen. It's about his fight with addiction and shows him struggling through warlocks and witches who have put big hooks in his legs to hold him back. It's grotesque but I like it.

Are you a natural at football?

No. I worked hard at it. Then they discovered I had good hands, so I became a goalie.

What have you failed at?

My driving test.

What upsets you?


What are you afraid of?

My driving test! Also spiders.


The Morehead Foundation scholarship is open to secondary schools in the United States, Canada and the UK. The foundation looks for students with the skills to lead and motivate others, including initiative, creativity, perseverance and empathy, scholastic ability and extra-curricular attainment, moral force of character and physical vigour, as may be shown by participation in sport.

For successful students, the Morehead Foundation pays almost all expenses - tuition fees, accommodation, meals, laundry, books, supplies, laptop computer, some travel costs (not health insurance) - for a four-year degree course at the University of North Carolina, plus a four-year summer enrichment programme that supplements the academic study. (Eve's first choice this year is sea-kayaking around Alaska.) More than 1,600 students applied for the 2006 scholarships. The US nominees were shortlisted to 68 from North Carolina and 54 from other states. The list of 56 recipients features 29 from North Carolina, 20 from other states, three from Canada and four from Britain: two from London schools, one from Winchester and Eve.


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