Netflix, Prison and Academia: Reflections Of A Durham University Student

Sarah Learmonth, a previous Foundation Centre student and current final year Criminology student, reflects on her Durham University experience and being awarded the prestigious Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence 2014-2015.


When did you attend the Foundation Programme?

I attending the Foundation Centre from 2011-12, and I’m now in my final year of a Criminology degree.

What were you doing beforehand?

After leaving school at 16, I gained employment with HMV where I continued to work happily for a number of years. I went on to accept a managerial position with a competitor company but sadly with the music retail industry in decline, I was made redundant. I then took a position in a call centre, it was meant to be a stop gap but I ended up working there for nearly three years.

Why did you decide to return to education?

I had become so dissatisfied with my work; I would spend the day counting down to the end of my shift. It’s difficult to articulate but spending years taking complaint calls for ten hours each day for a large telecommunications company is challenging… despite working alongside some of the most creative, talented and funny people I have ever met, I knew I needed to pursue a new challenge.

Higher education was never a route I’d previously considered. Whilst my family would have been incredible supportive should I have opted to attend university, it was not something that was expected of me. My family have always left school and worked hard in whatever their chosen careers were, but typically this excluded university level education. Nonetheless, I decided to begin to explore what educational options were available to me.


Why did you apply to the Durham University Foundation Programme?

I applied for the Foundation programme as it offered excellent support which I felt was crucial when returning to education following an extended break. Additionally, the Foundation Centre offer modules related to your chosen degree route and the staff are known for being friendly and approachable. To be honest, Durham University was my wild card. The university has such a strong reputation and known for accepting some of the brightest minds that I didn’t think I would be accepted. I was shocked and delighted when I received an offer.

Were you nervous about anything before arriving in Durham?

I was really nervous that I would be much older than everyone else, and whether I would struggle to build friendships. I also worried that I might not be intelligent enough to keep up with my peers. Thankfully my concerns were unfounded. The Foundation Centre has such a diverse range of students with differing ages and backgrounds. The friendships I made have been maintained throughout my degree and I currently live with two other people who were on the Foundation programme alongside me. The excellent support and teaching I received provided me with a strong footing for success, I never felt overwhelmed, and became more confident as the year progressed.

What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your degree route at Durham?

As a Criminology student in my final year, I applied and was selected to take part in a ground-breaking US programme as it launched in Europe, with a trial taking place at Durham University. The Inside Out Exchange Programme involves university students taking a criminal justice class with prisoners inside HMP Durham. It was an incredible opportunity where I was able to engage in dialogue with inside students (prisoners) on a range of topics from drugs, causes of crime and prison reform. I highly recommend this module for anyone on this degree route.


Well done on being awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarships for Academic Excellence, do you have any tips for succeeding academically?

Thank you! I was thrilled to receive the scholarship. Tips? I would say utilise the expertise of lecturers and other support staff, not only are they a wealth of knowledge but they can provide excellent advice on structuring essays, referencing and how to develop a strong critical argument. Also, what works for others may not work for you. For example, I rarely use the library other than collecting or returning resources. I can’t work there as I get too distracted by other people. I prefer to study in my flat. This differs for others. Lastly, plan your time well. It’s easy to binge on Netflix for a few days but before you know it that deadline is creeping up on you. You need to put the hours in.

What are your plans after you graduate this year?

I’m currently in the process of applying to postgraduate courses. I’m delighted to have been made an offer from the University of Cambridge to study a Criminal Justice MA and I’m also received an offer from the University of Kent to study a PhD. Nothing has been finalised yet but I’m excited to see where life takes me next.


What advice would you give to any prospective students?

If you are considering applying or finding out more, do it! Especially those who may have previously discounted university or come from a lower socio-economic background. For those due to join the Foundation Centre, rest assured that everyone else will have the same concerns and worries. You will soon settle in. Make the most of your time in Durham, it passes so quickly and there are so many events, societies and academic opportunities that are available to experience. I’ll be sad to say farewell to Durham University.


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