From fairground worker to Oxford graduate: whatever happened to… Shelby Holmes?
Unlike most Oxford graduates, when Shelby Holmes returns to the city next month it won’t be to meet up with friends, revisit favourite haunts or dine at her old college. As she has done for as long as she can remember, Shelby will be working at the St Giles’ Fair — without a doubt the only showman manning a stall or supervising a ride at the centuries-old street carnival to have earned a degree from the university that overlooks it.
This week marks five years since Shelby, like thousands of teenagers across the country, steeled herself to open the envelope that would reveal her A-level results. Those grades guaranteed her a place to study English Language and Literature at Trinity College on Broad Street — barely a stone’s throw from where she ‘hawked her wares’, as she puts it, as a youngster.
These days, two years after graduating, Shelby combines the fairground work she learned at an early age with her full-time job helping to run Bryngwyn Hall, a stately home in Powys, Wales.
Very few young people born into Britain’s small, close-knit community of travelling showmen go on to study at university — let alone a leading university such as Oxford. But for someone who has broken down barriers and been the subject of almost constant national media interest, Shelby is surprisingly laid-back — and refreshingly modest — about her achievements.
‘You’ll laugh, but when I was younger I thought there were only two or three universities in the whole of the UK,’
she says. ‘Oxford was on my radar because I’d worked the St Giles’ Fair and thought “This looks nice!”’
Like many Oxford students and graduates, Shelby credits her school teachers with giving her the drive and encouragement to aim for a future that might have been considered highly unlikely.
‘I was considering not going to university because of my commitments to the family business, but my English teacher in particular was hugely supportive of my aspirations’, says Shelby. ‘Her name was Helen Parry-Hughes and she was wonderful in so many respects. Instead of being content with the fact I’d been able to keep up with everyone else while I was away travelling, she knew I could do more and pushed me to do extra work.
‘My school was St Brigid’s in Denbigh, north Wales — a fantastic little state school run mostly on the love and enthusiasm of its staff. None of the teachers ever said to me “have you thought about applying to Oxford?” or “maybe you should think about applying to Oxford”. They knew I was capable, they knew I should be applying, and they never entertained the idea that I couldn’t or wouldn’t. It was the same with the three other girls in my year group who were doing well academically, but unfortunately their preconceptions about Oxford put them off applying.’
Those preconceptions, shared by many young people, parents and teachers from areas or demographic groups not traditionally well-represented at Oxford, are something the University’s access and outreach teams are working hard to address.
Shelby says: ‘When I came to Oxford for my interview I met lots of super-privileged people. One guy was even incredulous when I mentioned I’d never played croquet. But as far as I’m aware none of those people got in, and everybody in my college turned out to be what you’d describe as “normal”. As soon as we all got over the initial nerves and started talking about our subjects, it was clear we all had the same passion and drive for learning.
‘It was great, and it felt like we were all on the same wavelength. I felt like I truly belonged, and my background was never questioned. Whenever I did bring it up, people were interested and wanted to know more, but they were never hurtful or disrespectful. When it came down to it, we were all very similar in that we loved learning and loved our subjects. I felt a great sense of belonging in Oxford, and I’m always coming back to visit.’
Shelby always wanted to work in the heritage sector, and after joining Bryngwyn Hall in January 2016 as the archivist, she now looks after the day-to-day running of the 18th-century home. She will soon leave that role, however, to pursue an MBA that will allow her to assist with the main family business, a caravan park in Conwy. After that, she hopes to return to the heritage sector.
As well as all this, Shelby continues to give occasional interviews to local and national media outlets that remain fascinated by her story. ‘I’m happy to talk to media because, as a group, travelling showmen get some terrible press, and I see it as an opportunity to have a positive impact,’ she says. ‘I still work at several fairs every year, including St Giles’ and the Nottingham Goose Fair, which is Europe’s largest. It’s something that never leaves you, and it has given me so many transferable skills that are useful even in the office or at a conference — how to network, how to negotiate, how to present ideas. These are all things I learned on the fairground when I was hawking my wares at ten years old.
‘What I would say to anyone from a background like mine who has the potential to study somewhere like Oxford is not to feel as though you “might be acceptable” — Oxford is crying out for people like you. There are enough students from traditional or more privileged backgrounds, and what Oxford needs now is new thinking, new experiences and new backgrounds to breathe fresh life into academia.’
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