I am about to enter senior honours of my undergraduate History and Business Management degree at the University of Glasgow. This didn’t come about easily. My first attempt at junior honours was in 2013-14. So what happened to that and the two years since, you ask?
I only completed junior honours this last year, in 2015-16. In 2013-14 I dropped out of university, with 2014-15 being a (half) working year out.
Many reasons lead me to withdraw from university close to the end of my first junior honours year. But one was stress. Stress with work. Work that I was not spending enough time, well, working on. Why? Because I was distracted; by the need to develop graduate attributes - as we are obsessed with now in higher education. But far more fruitless, was the distraction of applying for that all essential internship!
With sight loss, the internship search is slower. Filling in the form is slower. We must consider the additional point of whether the placement is accessible, then how and when to disclose our disability, and prepare thoughts on the reasonable adjustments we might need. I worked so hard to succeed at this, getting to two interviews through my supportive university Careers Service, and even making my way onto the prestigious Saltire Foundation programme open to students of Scottish universities.
Despite long and hard work developing graduate attributes and making numerous applications, efforts came to nothing. I had no feedback from one university internship application, was told by the other that the business’s funders wouldn’t pay for me to be an intern because I didn’t have direct experience of working in marketing and PR - despite successfully evidencing positive experience of all the required attributes they asked for. Of the Saltire Foundation, I fought my way into the minority of applicants who actually made the programme. You have to pass an online application, then a face to face interview, before you are even able to finally apply for actual internships they offer. Every month you can apply for up to three internships on their list, having to spend additional time writing a cover letter for each. I did this diligently every month, never to hear a word that I had so much as been shortlisted for a final interview at which I could be offered an exciting opportunity.
I felt like I had to work harder in the higher education internships world. I felt I did this well. But I was left demoralised, behind on university work, and unable to continue into exams at the end of teaching.
Something that helped me so much to do better on returning to university this last year, was knowing there was a fairer way to get an internship - so I would have the experience no graduate seems able to do without. During the year out I found out about the RNIB Scotland Internship programme. You apply as a volunteer for the programme, can say when you would like to intern - because not everyone can afford to give up their whole summer, or a working season beginning in September, January or April for instance - and what areas of the charity interest you and in which you would like to develop skills. The internship is created, where possible, around the individual.
So I applied and spent this summer working part-time around other commitments with RNIB Scotland services across Glasgow and Edinburgh. With RNIB Connect Radio I learnt about research, planning and keeping cool to produce professional live and pre-recorded radio shows. They even let me loose, with responsibility to research, moderate and even present an edition of the RNIB Newsagent Show! Research and planning I assisted with again while working with the Online Today project as a volunteering coordinator.
Volunteers help make so many RNIB services possible, so I was asked to put my experience into considering how they can become a stronger part of the new Connect community. Online Today needs to reach and improve as many people’s lives with digital skills for getting online, so they needed research to help create future outreach events and drop-in sessions for customers. Both Online Today and the Transitions projects are lottery funded, while Employment and Learning Services who I also spent time with deliver the Work Choice programme on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. In delivering these services, collaboration and situational awareness are required. I enjoyed discovering these relationships, and too how people within different RNIB services are increasingly working better together to help customers. But at the end of the day, the most important person is the customer. A thrill as someone who had struggled to find an internship, was being able to observe, assist and at times take lead in customer interactions; so I could give a little back, putting what I was learning into action to help make a difference to people being supported to find work or make a positive next step in life.
I believe so strongly that everyone deserves a chance at an internship if they seek it and work hard. The RNIB runs internships across the UK. Some are full time special project internships, starting in April or September. For me though, these would not have fitted in with the university year. This summer RNIB Scotland’s being able to offer that bit more flexibility in an opportunity, has made a difference to me that I somehow feel will be priceless when coming to the graduate jobs market.
Thank you to all I worked with and whom supported me to have a great internship this summer. May more fairness and opportunity come to more young people with sight loss, who work so hard to get by, be independent, work and make a positive contribution to our world.