A degree of hope – the star student who overcame adversity

Marnie Rauf, ready for her metriculation ceremony for Durham University. Picture: Chris Barron
Marnie Rauf, ready for her metriculation ceremony for Durham University. Picture: Chris Barron

As new students settle in at universities, PETER BARRON tells inspirational story of a teenage girl whose life has been transformed with the support of a North-East housing association…

IN her crisp, black gown, Marnie Rauf stands proudly in front of Durham Cathedral as the morning clouds begin to disperse, just in time for the most important day of her life.

It’s matriculation day for Durham University – the traditional ceremony that welcomes new students – and, for 19-year-old Marnie, it represents a towering achievement. For most of her early years, education had been an irrelevance to Marnie, who was born in Middlesbrough, and taken into the care of social services from the age of five.

She prefers not to go into too many details, but suffice to say it hasn’t been easy for Marnie amid the breakdown of family life, poverty, mixing with the wrong crowd, and a frank admission that she “almost gave up hope on life”.

But now the future is infinitely brighter. Armed with a set of A-levels that anyone would be proud of, she’s embarking on an English Literature course, having chosen Durham from a batch of offers from other universities.

Chris Barron

“When I was at school, people around me thought I was stupid, and I thought so too because I’d never had a good grade, couldn’t spell, and was generally at a very bad level,” she says.

“But there have been turning points for me and, yes, I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved to get here.”

Academic success had seemed highly unlikely when Marnie left school with minimal qualifications, having struggled to find any stability in her life, and frequently finding herself in trouble.

After being “kicked out” of a house in Middlesbrough, she was placed in supported lodgings for six months in Redcar, with a man called Adrian, and she credits him with starting to turn her life around.

“It had reached the point where social services didn’t trust me to live by myself anymore, and it was a culture shock for me to live with an adult who had a job and had structure in their life,” she admits.

“Before going there, I never had any interest in anything academic, or in getting a job. I just expected to sign on and live off benefits, but Adrian was always so supportive. He actually showed a genuine interest and saw the potential in me. It was like a father-daughter relationship, and that was something I’d never had.”

It inspired Marnie to re-start her education and she began studying for her A-levels at Trinity Catholic College.

That coincided with social services arranging the next step towards independence, with Marnie being given safe accommodation at Rainham House, a supported housing unit for women, run by North Star, in Middlesbrough.

 

Working with specialist partners, the award-winning, not-for-profit social housing association provides a range of supported accommodation for women fleeing domestic abuse, or facing other challenges, such as homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and relationship breakdowns.

“Following on from the support I’d had from Adrian, going to Rainham House was another big turning point for me,” says Marnie.

“It’s amazing to see how passionate the staff are – they’re always there when you need them, but they also give you the confidence to start living independently as well.”

With North Star’s support, Marnie went from strength to strength. As part of her college studies, she wrote a piece about how small, persistent changes can transform lives. It was submitted for the prestigious Orwell Youth Prize – aimed at inspiring a new generation of politically engaged young writers – and she was awarded the runners-up slot out of entries from around the country.

The girl, who had considered herself to be a failure at school, emerged from college with an A-star in sociology, and As in English Language and English Literature.

“In sociology, we learned about the class barriers in education, and I started to have a better understanding of why those people around me at school were failing,” she explains. “Even so, I was surprised when I opened my results because I’d never had anything near an A before.”

Her success is also a justifiable source of pride for the staff at Rainham House. “We are beyond proud of Marnie,” says Team Manager Jan Mohan. “Despite the many challenges she’s faced in her life, she’s already achieved great things, and we know she’ll go on to achieve much more. She’s an inspiration to all others who seek refuge and safety in supported housing.”

Marnie’s ambition is to work in the media, possibly as a political journalist, broadcaster, or speech writer. Although she remains estranged from her family, she’s stayed in touch with Adrian, and he was there to help her move her belongings out of Rainham House, ready to start at Durham University. She has also agreed to repay the support she received from North Star by returning to Rainham House to share her experiences with residents, and show what can be achieved through sheer determination, and the right support.

“My message is don’t despair or give up hope,” she says.

“The past doesn’t matter – it’s the present and the future that counts.”

The matriculation ceremony is about to begin, Marnie Rauf is ready to embark on the latest chapter of her life, and blue skies are emerging above Durham Cathedral.