On 28 March the School of Advanced Study’s public engagement team will host a celebratory ‘graduation’ event at Senate House with Arts Emergency (AE), the educational charity that helps aspiring students from disadvantaged backgrounds ‘counter the myth that university, and in particular arts degrees, are the domain of the privileged’. We caught up with Carys Nelkon, the project’s service manager, to ask her a few questions about the upcoming event and the work that AE has been doing since its inception in 2011.
Could you tell us a bit about Arts Emergency? What do you do there and what is the charity trying to achieve?
Arts Emergency is a large support network of cultural and creative professionals (from university professors to dancers or game designers) for young people who don’t have a network of their own.
As the service manager I oversee all the work we do with students both here in London and in Manchester, and it’s the best job ever. We get to meet and support lots of brilliant young people and link them up with a range of talented mentors. Students are generally 16–17 years old when we first meet and match them with a mentor who shares their interests. Our hope is that they all finish the year having received good advice and feeling more confident and connected to the subject area/career they are most interested in.
Policymakers have largely dismantled many traditional ways working class people made it into academia or cultural and creative work. Arts Emergency is developing a new way into these things. Our students are supported for up to eight years – ensuring they get up the ladder, but also that they don’t slip back down. It’s working really well.
Why did you want to work with the School of Advanced Study and have your celebration event at Senate House?
We’re so chuffed to be having our celebration at Senate House with the School of Advanced Study. It’s a natural fit for us I think.
We share the School’s belief that the humanities are integral to civilisation, helping us to understand others through language, histories and cultures. We also believe in the transformational power of higher education, and are committed to promoting humanities and arts degrees and careers as viable options for young working-class people. We want the kids we work with to see that their interest in the humanities is valid, valuable and can help them towards the life/career they want.
For the majority of the young people we work with, they are the first in their family to go to university, so having a warm celebratory event at Senate House will hopefully help them to see academic spaces as somewhere they are welcome.
Could you tell us about the event itself? What can we expect on the night?
It’s a celebration! Mentor pairs who have worked together in the last year will be coming along to celebrate all the meetings, critiques, work experience adventures, outings and great work they’ve been doing. It’s a chance for us to properly thank the mentors for volunteering their time as well as an opportunity to let our young people know the AE network will continue to be here supporting them until they are 24.
We’re really lucky to have some brilliant speakers at the event. Professor Sarah Churchwell, [public engagement chair at the School of Advanced Study], has kindly offered to welcome everyone to Senate House. Liv Little, founder and editor of gal-dem, the print and online magazine collective, is going to deliver words of inspiration, and comedian (and our co-founder) Josie Long, will be saying a few words of congratulations too. There will be some student performances, videos and more important, cake!
What’s next for Arts Emergency? Have you got anything exciting lined up over the next year?
We have been working with academics from The University of Edinburgh to identify new sites for mentoring projects nationally. Over the next year we hope to expand our work in London and Manchester, and seed some pilots elsewhere too. It’s a real network, so we always begin small and keep it local and sustainable.
Finally, are there any ways for academics and others working in the humanities to get involved? What should they do next?
We would urge anyone who want to help to join our ‘alternative old boy’ network. It couldn’t be easier to get involved – it’s a mailing list where you can reply to specific requests from the 400 plus young people we work with, share the opportunities you come across with them, you can donate a small monthly amount to support student places (we are 100 per cent funded in this way), or you could even train as a mentor yourself and take part in next year’s project. The best link for all of this is www.arts-emergency.org/join-us.
- Arts Emergency, the brainchild of stand-up comedian Josie Long, and Neil Griffiths, was set up in 2011.
- Student members – 16-19 years old – are all in further education and come from diverse backgrounds. They join to explore their options in the arts, media, academia and professions such as law and architecture. Working with a mentor, they pursue a personal goal, meet useful people from the network, and give themselves a foundation of confidence and connections on which to build a successful future – on their own terms.
- After a year of mentoring ‘graduates’ are given ongoing access to the network. Every student that joined in the pilot year are now either studying at university or applying to go next year.
- ‘Student Debt Lottery’ was launched in 2014 to highlight the barriers and perceived barriers created by the escalating cost of undergraduate and postgraduate study, while raising money for a grant scheme to address the situation.