Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University of Sunderland. Master of Business Administration (MBA, 2007)
For over 20 years, Wendy has been an advocate and a cheerleader for disadvantaged students at the University of Sunderland. In 2016 Wendy and her colleagues launched the award winning We Care programme which nurtures, develops and supports care experienced and estranged students through their life at the University. From breaking down social isolation to being a ‘University family’ when needed, Wendy’s team help with everyday problems to life-changing events.
Wendy is also chair of the Board of Governors of Sunderland Virtual School, which provides personal learning support for care experienced young people to ensure they receive the best education and learning experiences possible. Wendy was awarded an OBE in HM Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 Birthday Honours List for Services to Higher Education.
Listen to Wendy’s story:
Read the transcript of Wendy’s interview:
Work at the University.
“My role at the University is Head of Widening Access and Participation. There’s four main areas to my role; one of them is the We Care Student Support. So, this is about providing bespoke support for care experienced and estranged students. And that can be anything right through from their initial point of contact to graduation and beyond. The other part is scholarships and bursaries. So, in my role, I am responsible for scholarships and bursaries for students within the institution, within the University, and it tends to be targeted at those who are currently underrepresented. So, for example, asylum seekers, refugees, Gypsy, traveller, Roma, showmen and boater are our main priority one targets and there are other groups as well, just as underrepresented. And then one of the other parts of my role is pre-sixteen outreach.
So, my team are responsible for working with schools and colleges right across the North East region to try and encourage young people to have their own experience of university so they can make an informed decision about their future. As you’ll probably be aware, universities are not a natural progression for a lot of the young people in our region. And what we want is for the opportunity to be there. It’s not the right thing for everybody, but the choice is. We just want them to have an experience that they can then build on. One of the most rewarding things is when you see these students graduate. So, when you meet someone when they’re 14 to 15, and they come in and they don’t know anything about university, then they’re interested, then they want to learn a bit more. And by the time they get to university at the age of 18, sometimes we’ve known these students for two or three years and then see them graduate, often with fantastic degrees as well. It’s really, really rewarding just to know that you’ve had a small but really important part in that journey, and obviously you’ve watched them mature as well. You’ve watched them turn from a child into a young adult and all the benefits that that brings at university as well. So, it is it’s a hugely rewarding job. I think we’re very proud of that as well. We’re very proud that we’re such a diverse and inclusive university and we do welcome people from all different backgrounds. And I think here at the University of Sunderland, we recognise the benefits that that can bring and certainly reaching out to students who traditionally wouldn’t progress to university or wouldn’t be thinking about it if we don’t do that. We’ve got this whole huge amount of untapped talent within our region that those people aren’t fulfilling their potential. And I know it sounds cheesy when we say it, you know, it is ‘life changing’, but we are providing life changing opportunities to a whole host of different students who are going on to be trusted to do well in the programmes, to be respected and to be admired by their course mates as well, and really being seen as positive role models”.
The values of the University.
“And it’s great to work for a university where their values as an organisation match your own personal values. I think a lot of staff say that, don’t they? We’re really proud to think, well, we do want to transform lives, we do want to be really committed to equality and diversity. And not everyone’s lucky enough to have that in an employer, so I feel very grateful that we are. A couple of the comments that we’ve had, I’ve just brought them along today. One student said ‘The support you provide is amazing. It’s the reason I’m still alive and in university. It’s all because of the We Care team’. I mean, I remember just choking back tears, reading it, thinking, oh, my goodness, that’s the impact- that’s the difference that it makes. Another comment from a student, again, anonymous, was ‘The We Care team are like the family that I never had. I know there’s always someone there rooting for me’. So, this is so much more than an academic experience or a support network at university. And I think for me, I do feel incredibly proud to work here”.
On receiving an OBE.
“I think it still feels as surreal now as it did back at the time. It was an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, which is an OBE. I’d been away to London for a few days with my husband and my children and got back and the letter, was there with a little pile of post and I remember opening it and just I couldn’t take it in. It was just surreal. Absolutely surreal to think that I’d even be nominated felt like such an honour in itself. And I think for over 20 years I’ve just been so busy doing my job and enjoying doing the job. I’ve never thought about any personal honour or anything like that. So, it was it was very surreal. But I think for me, I’m really pleased. And what I’ve particularly liked is, once it was made public in June, the amount of people that have said to me, ‘Oh wow, I’ve never known anyone with an OBE before, isn’t it nice to know a normal person with an OBE?’ It’s like things like my son’s football coach said, ‘You know, you always hear about celebrities, who get OBEs, but not normal people’. This is great because although I got the award, as I said at the time, it would never have been possible without the team that I have supporting me.
I’m so fortunate to have the most amazing colleagues at the University and I think our job is never a 9 to 5 job. It’s evenings, weekends, you know, whatever it takes to do, we do it and I think even everyone from the University Executive to the students that we work with, everybody’s proud of the part that they can play in that journey. Although I’ve accepted the award, I know for a fact that it’s been a team contribution and I’ve been very, very lucky to have those colleagues over the years and still have them now”.