Supporting schools to widen participation

Tuesday 27 February 2024


The Schools Liaison & Outreach Officer at St Catharine’s works with schools with little experience of supporting students to apply to Oxbridge - or to higher education institutions in general – to inspire young people and help them reach their full potential. Working closely with teachers, we provide guidance on the Oxbridge admissions process, as part of our commitment to encouraging applications from students with academic potential of all backgrounds.

Liza Zhabina has been the College’s Schools Liaison & Outreach Officer since October 2021 but she has recently agreed to take on the duties of our Undergraduate Admissions Administrator while a colleague is on maternity leave. To ensure continued support for schools and our outreach programme, Lauren Hines has been recruited to the role of Schools Liaison & Outreach Officer while Liza is providing maternity cover. 

Lauren tells us about a typical visit made by a school to St Catharine’s earlier this month (soon after she joined us on 1 February), and how our activities helped to inform and inspire the students who participated. 

Start of the day

“I usually start my day around 8:45am. With our visitors arriving at 9.50am, there was time for me to check my inbox for emails from the different schools around the country that Catz supports, and respond to any requests for information or future visits. Under the University of Cambridge’s Area Link Scheme, St Catharine’s has particular responsibility for schools in North Yorkshire, Suffolk and Rutland, as well as a few selected Cambridgeshire schools linked with us through the Connect to Cambridge Scheme.

“I know what it’s like to automatically disregard the idea of going to university or (as happened in my case) be explicitly told not to pursue higher education. A careers advisor in my state school told me instead to work in the care sector. While working in a care home, I met a resident called Molly, who was the first person to encourage me to think about current affairs and returning to education.

“After completing an access course at nearby Northbook College on Molly’s advice, I chose to apply for an undergraduate degree in Politics at the University of Sussex, largely because it was also in my geographical comfort zone – I honestly didn’t even consider going further afield from my hometown of Worthing. The Area Link Scheme is an important way of overcoming the complex, intersectional barriers faced by many students so they can see for themselves whether they might thrive at world-class universities like Cambridge.”

A warm welcome for our visitors

“Our visit was organised with Pakefield High School, a co-educational secondary near Lowestoft in Suffolk. The school brought around 30 students from Year 9 and Year 10 to us for the day. It was important that everyone felt comfortable after their coach journey, so we offered the group the chance to refuel with juice and water, before sitting down in the McGrath Centre for the morning’s sessions. 

Students from Pakefield High School in Dawson Court at St Catharine's College
Our visitors arrive and head to the McGrath Centre

“It was my first chance to see Liza delivering a welcome presentation and introduction to the University of Cambridge, which I’ll be presenting for future visits. Liza is going to be on hand while I settle into my new role at Catz – we’re sharing the same office and she’ll even join me on the upcoming North Yorkshire Roadshow (read about last year’s roadshow). Given Catz is over 550 years old, I was prepared for a bit of stuffiness but instead I’ve had a very warm and friendly welcome from Liza and the rest of the community. 

“Liza’s talk ensured the visit started off on the right foot by explaining how the University works and dispelling some of the myths about Cambridge life that we hear from students on a regular basis. I wish that I’d heard some of this helpful advice before I applied to Cambridge as I found it difficult figuring out how the collegiate system worked and ended up submitting an ‘open’ application. Luckily, I enjoyed my MPhil at Wolfson College and had the opportunity to see what the different Cambridge Colleges have to offer before I graduated last year.”

Introducing our Student Ambassadors

“Mid-morning, Liza introduced our visitors to four of our Student Ambassadors. These are St Catharine’s undergraduates who play a really important role in our widening participation activities by backing up the College’s advice with their own personal experiences and reflections. Our Student Ambassadors started off with a Q&A session so that the Pakefield students could pick their brains. 

“Liza encouraged me to join the discussion and I was able to chip in when we got a question about the qualifications needed to study at Cambridge. By sharing how an access course was my steppingstone, I hope the group felt they could pursue university education even if personal circumstances mean they aren’t able to get A-Level qualifications. 

“The Student Ambassadors then led a tour of the excellent facilities at Catz, which brought to life some of the aspects of life at Cambridge that we’d discussed earlier that morning. It is great that Catz is visible through the iron railings for anyone passing by, but nothing beats a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of our hall, libraries, bar, gym and other spaces to get a feel for what it might be like to live and study here.”

A St Catharine's student ambassador shows visiting students a periodic table sci-art installation
St Catharine's student ambassadors gave our visitors a tour of our facilities

Planning for the future

“After lunch, the group heard from David Bainbridge (2003), Admissions Tutor (Sciences) at Catz, who spoke about the choices available to the students when they turn 16 years old and advice for anyone thinking about applying for undergraduate courses. David has been involved in admissions at Catz for many years and it means a lot that he takes the time to share his advice with visiting students. If anyone isn’t at a school connected with us through the Area Links Scheme, then I’d encourage them to come along to one of our open days when you’ll also have a chance to meet and hear from our Admissions Tutors and Student Ambassadors. The next open days are on 4–5 July 2024.”

Visiting a nearby department

“Catz is handily located in the heart of Cambridge city centre so schools often have time to visit nearby departments and faculties. The Pakefield students spent some of their afternoon at the Department of Engineering, where they met Dr Jinx St. Leger and were challenged to build the strongest bridge using only paper, staples, wooden sticks, and screws. The winner was determined by which bridge could hold the greatest number of canned beans. It was a fun way for the group to learn about engineering and experience one of the STEM subjects that isn’t taught at GCSE or A Level.

“It was so stimulating to spend the day with these young people and connect with them about their futures. It would be great if the advice and encouragement they got from everyone at Catz empowers them to think about their options and follow their dreams – it’s lovely to think that I could inspire someone else like Molly inspired me! 

“I also saw how some of the barriers to higher education that I faced and studied during my MPhil with the Department of Education are still present for the next generation of students. Thanks to the fantastic teaching and supervision I received during my MPhil, I gained an academic understanding of how educational disadvantage manifests for individuals depending on a range of factors, which I know will inform my daily practice in the position of SLO. I hope to apply for a PhD in Education in the not-too-distant future and I can already see that my hands-on experience of widening participation at Catz might inform the direction of my research.”

An engineering challenge set for visiting school pupils, showing a group around a table with paper and other stationery
One of the group's tackle the challenge set by the Engineering Department