Olivia speaks to QUAD from the 2022 long vacation, suspended between her second and final years reading for a degree in geography at Worcester College.
She is one of just ten annual applicants to be accepted into the prestigious Promentor Mentorship scheme offered by Oxford University’s Careers Service.
Supported by the MaxEm Trust, the Promentor Programme offers mentoring by Oxford alumni exclusively for foundation and first year students on bursaries at the University of Oxford, for the duration of their undergraduate degree.
Olivia was a Crankstart scholar and grew up part and part on the Welsh/English sides of the border at Flintshire.
The dissertation she is working on as we speak is titled, ‘The use of ‘linguistic landscape’ at the Welsh border to navigate national identity.’
The subject matter is entirely consistent with the three mentors she has talked to since beginning the programme in her first year, all connected one way and another with diplomacy and the geopolitics of international relations.
The first was Sarah McGill (Brasenose, 2008), a researcher at Oxford; the second a young diplomat called Omar Mohsen (Jesus, 2014); the third a more senior UN official Maurizio Giuliano (Univ, 1993).
The scheme is structured so that mentees meet one mentor per term. Mentors are very carefully picked by dedicated employees at the Careers Service. Students are trained too, so they know what they are getting and why it matters; the utmost effort is made to make the scheme a success.
Olivia reports that one of the most valuable aspects of the scheme has been the fact that you can ‘ask really nitty gritty questions.’ Irrespective of the seniority of the mentor, the idea is that you can ask the most basic questions.
Brilliantly, Omar Mohsen, an Arabic speaker and Fast Stream Foreign Office success, is himself an ex-Crankstart scholar, evidence for a strong, emergent community of Crankstarters (formerly known as Moritz-Heyman Scholarships).
Low-income students at Oxford are automatically offered a non-repayable bursary of up to £5,000 towards study and living costs for each year of their course, plus a broad range of work experience help, which includes several different mentoring programmes.
Within Promentor, the idea is that you meet your mentor in person at least once but this hasn’t happened owing to COVID. Equally, Olivia’s contact with each mentor has continued beyond the official discussions, a lovely, organic extension suggesting that the contact is valuable also for the mentors.
Olivia reports that the mentoring has influenced her choice of special subjects that reach beyond the core curriculum for geography, and in that way have already shaped her likely career trajectory. She has chosen to study the option modules Politics, Society and Culture of China; Geopolitics in the Margins, and Sustainable Urbanisms.
She has also been fully engaged in student matters, becoming the Class Act rep for Worcester, and First Gen rep on the central Class Act committee, the latter representing the views of students who are the first generation to attend university in their families – thus a much wider role since it covers the whole University rather than one college.
Class Act is a Student Union campaign which represents students from underrepresented socio-economic backgrounds at Oxford.
She says that Worcester has been a very good college in trying to help non-Public school students to ‘catch up’ in their first year at Oxford, but that nonetheless inequalities persist and are reflected in Prelims results.
‘COVID made it worse in ways that mirrored broader patterns of Work from Home,’ she says. ‘If you have access to a quiet room with a desk, and good tech, is not a foregone conclusion. But it is critical if you are sitting exams online.’
Olivia sat all her geography Prelims online, having done much of the study at home back in Flintshire, a slightly surreal experience because it bridged together two completely different worlds in ways that might be the stuff of comedy, were the degree and career implications not so important.
But this brings the focus squarely back to the power of mentoring.
‘As you can imagine, being from a small town in North Wales means nobody in my family works even remotely close to the field of diplomacy.’
For first generation university students, of whom Olivia is one, the potential benefit of being connected to relevant, well-briefed mentors is huge.