Since August 2011 I have been employed within the Undergraduate Recruitment and Widening Participation division at the University of Manchester, primarily to work on the Manchester Gateways Programme. I previously did some work for them while I was finishing my PhD and just afterwards. I have been responsible for co-ordinating a series of events for secondary school learners, bringing them on to the University campus to take part in higher education awareness activities and subject-specific workshops. Gateways is targeted at talented learners from the Greater Manchester area who have the ability to progress into higher education and are from backgrounds that are currently under-represented.

Well, Thursday was the last event day of the academic year for this programme. So far I have delivered thirty-five Gateways events across the Year 7 to 11 age range (11-16), working with thirty local schools. That means I’ve had the opportunity to work with about 2000 young people over the past eight months. We’ve been on campus tours of Manchester’s Oxford Road campus, interviewing current undergraduate and postgraduate students, and we’ve learned a lot about why people might choose to go to university.

The students also take part in workshops related to different subject areas, run by current Manchester PhD candidates and post-doctoral researchers. Students have had the opportunity to extract DNA from strawberries, learn about how the brain works, think about how controversial objects are displayed by museums, and the intersection of art and politics in Picasso’s Guernica to name but a few. There are many more workshops that they have attended, and I have been privileged to see most of these in action. The PhD students and post-docs are so passionate about the work that they do and this becomes infectious. I have learned so many things over the past year that I would not have done otherwise.

There are mixed feelings here about the ending of my year with the Programme. Much of the delivery I do on events is the general information and guidance about university: what a university is, what it does, and what the benefits are of going. Last year I was one of the post-docs designing and delivering English workshops, focusing primarily on my own research: medieval literature. I loved being able to work with people who initially had very little idea of what medieval literature was all about, introducing them to something new and hearing their thoughts on the work I care so much about.

I have also loved working with Manchester’s Student Ambassadors. They are wonderful people who work so hard to make the days that we run successful. Without them, we couldn’t do the work that we do. They gave me a lovely card on Thursday and I was overwhelmed by the support they also have for the events we run.

I will miss them over the summer, and I will continue to miss those who are sitting their final exams this year and moving on to bigger and more exciting times in their lives. They really capture what a university is about: working hard, playing hard, and having a sense of humour throughout it all. I owe them a big thanks.

The outreach work is very different from my academic teaching. This year I haven’t done any of that; it’s been difficult. I love working with undergraduates on texts, building the intellectual relationships that make academic life so stimulating. There’s also been very little time for my own research this year and I’m missing that terribly.

So, I find myself feeling at a bit of a turning point today. In many ways I am pleased that the events for this year have finished; they have been very successful and so many students have left those days with positive attitudes about themselves and their abilities. I am looking forward to planning the events for next year, which is going to occupy much of my time between now and September. I am excited about the prospect of gearing up for next year’s set of visit days, even though I probably won’t be working on them. But I am also aware of the desire I have to return to academic life. I have article deadlines looming, a book proposal that I keep promising myself I’ll get round to finishing, and other plans to make about where I want to be when September comes around.