Mentoring and broadening horizons - Promise Knight
Drawing from her own experiences, Promise Knight (St Catharine's 2007) realised how much mentoring can change a person’s life. Today she has set up her own foundation to mentor young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I realised, from my own experience, how much mentoring can change a person’s life, I want to see young people have the sort of support and guidance that can help them to fulfil their unique potential and goals.
I was born in Nigeria and lived there until I was about three when I joined my mother in the UK. My mother had come to Britain to work and sent for us to join her and my stepfather (who is from the Irish Republic) once she had settled. I grew up in a very difficult environment, and I can’t recall ever being happy at home. My relationship with my mother was (and still is) very strained, and I could never ever really communicate with her or relate to either of my parents. Home was a place where my talents were never encouraged and where I didn’t have a space to call my own. I shared a two-bedroom council flat with six relatives, and a single bed with my sister. My focus was always on escapism, so I used to read anything I could get my hands on: the back of soup tins, toilet paper, an array of packaging – perhaps the key motivator for wanting to read English was to escape the reality of my upbringing.
By the time I was 16 I had, in effect, been abandoned – socially and economically – and left to my own devices. I was estranged from my parents and our relationship was so toxic by this time, that when they moved to a new house in Luton, I stayed on at our old council flat in Willesden, north west London, by myself.
Journey to Cambridge
Although I was bright, the lack of support from my parents resulted in me having very low self-esteem. I simply didn’t believe in myself or think that I could achieve anything much in my life. In effect, I just wrote myself out of the picture. So at school, even though I was very much capable of achieving, I didn’t have much focus or aspiration. At that time school was simply a means to escape from my unhappy home circumstances. I used it more as an outlet than as a place to study and learn. That started to change when the wonderful community of teachers and a mentor, Camilla Lewis, started to support me. A local parent and television executive, I met Camilla and her family at the age of 12 when I took part in a BBC children’s exploration programme called ‘Serious Desert’.
Despite not readily pursuing academia, or maybe even seeing it as a realistic option going forward for me, I was encouraged – in fact ambushed – to submit an application to the University. My school at the time was an inner city comprehensive that utilised effectively outreach projects such as Cambridge University Widening Participation and the Access Office. Although the effort was far-fetched I was invited for an interview and received a place to read English at St Catharine’s College. It wasn’t until I arrived at Catz that I realised that my mentor, Camilla’s, belief in me helped me to challenge my own perception of myself.
The St Catz community, top of the class and pursuing politics
University was very challenging. I was essentially so far behind that I felt not only like an outsider, but also as though I was always playing catch up. I loved my subject and for me it had always been the thing that motivated me the most. My intellectual curiosity, both of my subject and sense of place, was satisfied by my Director of Studies, Hester Lees-Jeffries, and Senior Tutor, Dr Paul Hartle. I’ve never taken for granted the opportunity to be taught by them as leading academics in their field. The sense of gratitude that I felt as a result of being part of a community of dedicated, supportive people at St Catharine’s was translated into effective and immediate assistance to those who were considering applying to the University and came from a similar background to mine. I was involved in 'access projects' – leading tours for prospective students, sharing my experiences and journey as well as becoming St Catharine’s College Rep for Student Community Action.
Having arrived at the bottom of my class – so much so that I came to College a week before everybody else to take part in introductory learning sessions – I left top of my class. During my finals, an opportunity to experience working in politics came my way. I grabbed it with both hands and as a result I was offered internships and also paid posts working for a number of parliamentarians. I have since gone on to work for Citizens UK, the largest civic alliance and home of community organising in the UK, and co-founded a mentoring charity. The charity pairs young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with local professionals in gentrifying inner city communities as an avenue to address issues surrounding social mobility.
Mentoring for young people
Because I realised, from my own experience, how much mentoring can change a person’s life, I want to see young people have the sort of support and guidance that can help them to fulfil their unique potential and goals. The stark contrast between the Promise I could have been and the Promise I am has become a clear indication that there is a real benefit in connecting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with responsible, wise and committed adults.
I’d like to see the Promise Foundation develop into an organisation that is a community effort. By that, I mean that it is led and supported by parents, the community at large and local businesses, and that these groups are committed to promoting the potential of young people by offering them help, support, advice, direction; and also through broadening their horizons in the way that studying at the University of Cambridge has certainly broadened mine.
Promise has a BA (Hons) in English and attended St Catharine's College. She is Co-founding Trustee at the Promise Foundation. For more information on mentoring and how you can help support the Foundation, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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This article has been written by Promise Knight and the opinions expressed are those of the author.