Being a young carer didn't stop me from realising my dreams of going to university in Sheffield
Autumn Beard understands responsibility better than most.
She was just nine years old when she became a young carer, helping to look after her stepfather, who had been diagnosed with mental health problems, and her sister, who has a chromosome disorder.
Spending her secondary school years juggling school, a job, and helping to care for her family, Autumn was devastated when she missed out on the grades she needed to study to become a paramedic.
“I didn’t have the time I needed to revise,” she explains simply.
“When I lived at home, me and my mum worked as a tag team.
“Each morning, I would do my paper round, make everyone breakfast, get my sister washed and dressed and ready for college, and then head off to school.”
Without the GCSE grades she needed to study biology, Autumn instead began a BTEC in public services.
“The entry requirements were a little lower,” she says.
“I got through college much as I had school, but going on to higher education at university just didn’t feel feasible.
“It was only when I started looking at Sheffield Hallam University, and the application had a box you could tick if you were a young carer, that I began to feel differently.
“I’d never seen a box like that before, and I began to think that maybe it was possible after all.”
Autumn found that Sheffield Hallam University offered support especially for people with caring responsibilities, including mentoring, tailored financial advice and bursaries.
“It gave me that extra push to go for it,” she says.
Autumn began a three-year nursing degree, moving away from home to undertake her studies, but her caring role didn’t end there.
“At university, I was on call 24/7,” says the now-23-year-old.
“I was emotional support for my stepdad every day, constantly on the phone and texting to make sure he was okay.
“I also had my sister and my dad, who has his own issues with mental health, that I was looking out for.
“My role every day was checking in, all day long, and making sure everyone was okay.
“There was also an awareness that, after my mum, I'm the primary carer, so if anything were to happen to her, I'd have to drop everything and go home and probably quit the course.
“That was always in the back of my mind.”
Research has shown that students with caring responsibilities are four times more likely to drop out of university, and Autumn admits this is something she considered many times, especially early on.
“In the first year, I lived in halls and everyone was just into partying,” she recalls.
“I hadn't done any of that before uni, because I was busy caring, so I would just sit alone in my room.
“It would scare me that people were still up until 4am.”
Statistics also show that 45 per cent of student carers struggle with mental health issues - a figure that Autumn suspects is much higher.
“I think most student carers will have struggled with mental health in some way,” says Autumn, who worked as a student carers ambassador, and as health care assistant in a mental health facility while she was at university.
“I've struggled with mental health since I was 10.
“I didn’t do anything about it until I went to university and saw a councillor through the university's wellbeing service.
“It was really good to chat to someone and have all my feelings validated.
“There were times when I’d think I was in the moment, but it felt like there was always something there, stopping me from fully enjoying myself - it's hard to describe.'”
Autumn also admits that money was a worry during her university years: “I didn't have spare money I could put aside for an emergency, so money was a constant concern.
“There were occasions when I was needed at home but couldn't go because I didn't have the money to pay for the train ticket.
“While I was at university, a Carer's Emergency Travel Fund was launched, which was available to students with caring responsibilities who needed to travel home at short notice.
“It offered peace of mind to know that if something did happen we would be able to go home immediately.
“Mental health and wellbeing is so important for student carers because if you're struggling to cope, your uni work is going to suffer and you won't be able to do your job as a carer."
More recently Sheffield Hallam University and The University of Sheffield have joined forces to form The Higher Education Progression Partnership, which works across the Sheffield City Region to encourage more children, young people and adults to consider higher education opportunities.
It is jointly funded by both educational establishments, and provides impartial advice and guidance about higher education to all schools in the Sheffield City Region.
HEPP’s project coordinator, Kelly Self, said: “Young carers are tough to identify, as not all students will say they’re young carers, they’ll say I just help my mum and don’t realise what they’re doing.
“We’re here to try and support young people and to provide them with the information and advice they need when they’re trying to decide what their next steps in higher education should be.
“University isn’t something that should be for the few, it’s for the many.
“There’s an awful lot of wellbeing support out there in these universities, and that’s the message we want to get out to students who, like Autumn was five years ago, are at the beginning of the journey.”
Today Autumn is a staff nurse at Northern General Hospital, and is thrilled that she stuck with her dream of pursuing higher education.
“To any young carer out there considering going on to higher education, I would say just go for it,” says Autumn, who lives in the Highfield area of the city.
“There is support out there, and a way to make it happen for you, whatever your situation.
“Even if it’s home or distant learning, there’s a way to get you onto that next rung of the ladder, so just reach out, and ask for the support.”
And when it comes to her dreams, Autumn says she hasn’t given up on her hope of one day becoming a paramedic.
“I love my job, and am in a really good place right now,” she says.
“But I’ve seen what’s possible when you push, so I’ll never say never.”