Former ‘Big Issue’ seller wins place at Cambridge University – and an award

A former homeless man who sold the ‘Big Issue’ on the streets of Cambridge is following his dream of studying at Cambridge University – and celebrating an award win.

Geoff Edwards, 52, won a place to study English Literature at one of the world’s top universities after gaining distinctions in an Access to Higher Education course at Cambridge Regional College.

His achievement has been recognised by CAVA, the Cambridge Access Validating Agency, which has awarded him an Outstanding Academic Achievement award, due to be presented at a special ceremony next month. 

The Access course, designed for adults who want to return to education or need extra qualifications to go on to university, enabled Geoff – and fellow CRC Access student Jannah Abdulayem, 25, – to open doors they thought were closed forever, with both students joining Hughes Hall this term, the oldest Cambridge college for graduates and mature undergraduates.

Jannah and Geoff are following their dream of going to Cambridge University after an Access to HE course at CRC

Geoff has been invited to receive his award and address delegates at the CAVA Annual Conference, which takes place at the Mǿller Centre in Cambridge on 5 December.

The new undergraduate spent a large part of his adult life homeless in Cambridge after his work as a field labourer dried up, and it was only when he began to sell the Big Issue that he started to regain self-respect and optimism for the future.

Despite leaving school with just two O levels, his ambition was to study English Literature at university – and he visited an open day at Cambridge Regional College to find out how he could get the right qualifications to do so.

“Going to Cambridge University was a dream of mine, studying something I really love – I’m still getting used to the idea. This is what I have always wanted to do, but no-one in my family had been to university so I didn’t even consider it,” said Geoff.

“I didn’t think of applying to Cambridge – I didn’t think Cambridge University would take someone like me, but my tutor encouraged me to apply. It is the first thing I am proud of in my life.

“Cambridge is a big step up but I am looking forward to pushing myself. I can’t believe what I’ve achieved.

“I came to Cambridge from Liverpool to do field work, but the work dried up. I was homeless for a long time after that and I was isolated and getting anxious. Eventually I started selling the Big Issue on the streets of Cambridge which helped and gave me back a bit of self-respect.

“I knew I was in a rut and I decided to do something different with my life. I thought about how to address it and decided education was the way so I went to an open day at Cambridge Regional College. I wanted to get the qualifications to do English at university but I’d had a long time out of education and I only had Maths and English O levels, so I needed to do a Gateway course, a pre-Access course. It prepared me well for the Access course which gave me the qualifications to get to Cambridge.

“It did me so much good. There was always someone there to talk to and the college was very welcoming. I was worried about my age but studying makes you feel young and I have enjoyed mixing with young people.”

His fellow student Jannah, who came to Cambridge from Syria when she was 19, said: “I have loved learning in England. It is completely different to Syria where everything is about learning things off by heart. I have learned so much at Cambridge Regional College and it has prepared me for university so well.  

“I have never really been seen as clever, because of the teaching methods in Syria but to know I am clever enough to get into Cambridge is amazing. I wanted to be a teacher but I just don’t know now. Cambridge opens up lots of opportunities.”

The President of Hughes Hall, Dr Anthony Freeling said: “Hughes Hall is committed to ensuring that the gates of Cambridge University are open to all who have the potential to succeed. We congratulate Geoff and Jannah and all those who have been successful in achieving entry this year.”

Cambridge Regional College Access to Higher Education tutor Debbie Goodrick said both students were outstanding. “We are absolutely delighted that Geoff’s hard work and outstanding achievement has been recognised by a CAVA award. I am very, very proud of Geoff and Jannah. It is exceptional to have two Access students in a year get into Cambridge,” she said.

“I have taught Access students from age 18 to age 78 – it is never too late to return to education. What they have in common is that they are here now to get to university and among them are some of the brightest, most motivated and inspirational people I have ever met. Geoff and Jannah have had incredible journeys to where they are now, and I have no doubt that they will flourish at Cambridge.”

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