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‘It can be very isolating coming to university without that familial support’ | How estranged students navigate university life

Jess Cohen learns about the experience of estranged students at university.

By Jess Cohen, Second-year, Sociology

Being a university student can come with many challenges; from reaching deadlines and keeping track of your monthly spending, to familiarising yourself with campus life. For many students, the Christmas holidays can’t come around quickly enough. A time for reuniting with family members, eating familiar home-cooked meals and enjoying the general comforts of being back in your hometown; this period, for most, signifies relaxation and reset. However, for estranged students, this can be far from the reality. 

Generally, estrangement refers to a student who has little or no contact with their parents, with their situation being unlikely to change. Many factors can play into family estrangement, however, perhaps the most notable causes are emotional abuse, familial alienation or marital conflict. Often experienced by LGBTQ+ students who have been rejected or disowned by family members, estrangement may be the result of mismatched values and expectations. Despite the fact that many estranged young people (EYP) have experienced abuse, are coping with the trauma of family breakdown, and have had to navigate financial independence, the struggles they face are largely invisible.

In 2022, Buttle UK, a children’s charity providing grants to children and young people who have gone through crisis, estimated that there are between 93,000 and 206,000 EYP’s aged 16 to 20 in the UK. This staggering number signifies how widespread familial estrangement truly is, despite it being so readily unacknowledged. For many students living away from their families, the concept of ‘home’ is emotionally loaded and complex. 

Speaking to Alex O’Driscoll, a Student Inclusion Team Manager at the University of Bristol, he explained that ‘It can be very isolating coming to university without that familial support. I think a lot of students take it for granted that they have someone there who can help them financially and emotionally; a home during the holidays and somewhere to go back to.

‘As an estranged student, you don’t necessarily have those things. It might be that they move to university and that city is now their home, whereas, for other students, university is simply a place they stay during term time.’

Epigram spoke to an estranged student — who wished to remain anonymous — about their experience at university. They said that ‘You get a few weird glances when you tell people you are staying here for the holidays. It’s a conversation that I am used to having, but a conversation that never really gets easy. Even though I have come to terms with my life now being in Bristol and living here independently, the conversations get easier, but they never get easy.’ 

Whilst certain universities may allow estranged students to stay in halls over the holidays, many will be dealing with private landlords who may be less considerate and open to delaying the payment of bills or rent. That being said, if you are living in private accommodation and need a guarantor but don’t have anyone to ask, many universities and colleges, including the University of Bristol, can help bypass this requirement. Through the University of Bristol’s relationship with Housing Hand, a company that offers a fully comprehensive guarantor service to all students, private accommodation is no longer limited solely to those who have guarantors from their household. 

Many other initiatives are also being implemented here in Bristol to support estranged students to ensure that they feel safe, supported and able to reach their potential.

On a mission to diversify the student body at the University of Bristol, the Widening Participation team supports prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds – including estranged students – with accessing university, offering support through the complex university application process.

Once enrolled, the estranged student team is dedicated to offering trustworthy and accessible support to all those who need it. Maria Tottle, the Student Inclusion Officer and dedicated estranged student contact, works with undergraduate students, providing them with invaluable resources, aid and guidance. As Alex explained, ‘It can be really difficult if there’s lots of different routes and terminology that you need to get to the bottom of, so it’s great that Maria can help with signposting the support that students could and should be eligible for.’

Furthermore, The Bristol SU Care Leavers and Estranged Students’ Network (CLES), provides a safe space for estranged students with shared backgrounds and experiences to connect and support one another through relaxed and inclusive social events.

‘9000 UK students have no contact or relationship with their families

In conversation with a second-year Law student and member of the CLES network, she explained: ‘It’s so nice to sit down and talk about your situation with people who can relate. You can bond in a unique way [because] a lot of things can go unspoken; you don’t have to explain things because these people already understand.’ 

Whilst research by Stand Alone has shown that 9000 UK students have no contact or relationship with their families and that these students are three times more likely to drop out of university, there are many organisations offering financial support to ensure that being estranged doesn’t mean that you are left behind. 

The Unite Foundation is an independent charity that runs a nationwide accommodation scholarship, taking care of students’ accommodation and bills for up to three years at university. Through the Unite Foundation scholarship, students are free to enjoy everything that university offers, ‘Safe in the knowledge that they have a secure home.’ 

At the University of Bristol, the Unite Foundation Scholarship provides recipients free en-suite accommodation in Unite House or Orchard Heights. Furthermore, whilst it can potentially be difficult to gain estranged status from the Student Loans Company (SLC), the Bristol Standalone Bursary, a scheme which funds care leavers, estranged students and bereaved students, offers awards of £1500 to UK, full-time, undergraduates who meet the criteria.

Speaking to Epigram, a Law-undergraduate and estranged student — who wished to remain anonymous — advised future estranged students starting their university journeys to ‘Research in advance what the university can offer in terms of bursaries, scholarships and funding, and consider the costs of living within the city you choose to study in. Also, make sure that there is enough space mentally for you to take on the struggles of university, remember that there is a lot of independence needed and you have to be your own safety net.’

Alex explained that ‘Just because you may not feel like you are emotionally ready for university right now, that doesn’t mean that you might still feel like that a year later. Definitely think about your mental health and how it may change over time.’ 

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Whether it be navigating financial independence, working out where to spend the holidays or managing the stress of academic workloads without familial support, estranged students face many challenges. However, there are many dedicated contacts here at the University of Bristol providing support for the estranged student population.

Featured Image: Epigram / Dan Hutton

Further support for estranged students at The University of Bristol can be found here.