Improving access to higher education and running are not two subjects that you would automatically put together, but that is exactly what Lena Sorochina, Outreach Officer at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, has done.
Over the next five days Lena will undertake a 130km run — a distance of more than three marathons — on a tour of schools along the Kent coast.
Lena will visit secondary and primary schools in the College’s outreach link region, running from stop to stop and giving talks to pupils about higher education, university life and how to prepare a competitive application to Oxford, before racing off to the next school.
The motivation for this unusual approach to access was triggered by recent research published by the Bridge Group, which revealed a ‘stark contrast between the widening participation and outreach activities’ that exist for those in London, compared to other parts of the country. Lena hopes to cut through a ‘backdrop of highly unequal access to cultural enrichment and outreach for students’ in rural areas, and bring Oxford University directly to the people of Kent.
We caught up with her ahead of her big challenge:
How did you come up with this unusual idea?
I was trying to think of original ways to reach more schools along the Kent coast, and then it just hit me, why not combine delivering outreach talks with a fun sporting activity that anyone can take part in.
At Oxford we talk a lot about reaching out to the whole country.
I also love running, and feel strongly that there is no sport more accessible. All you need is a pair of trainers and you are set, whether as a group or on your own.
Improving access to higher education is incredibly important, but quite heavy subject matter, and I thought that a running tour could be an unusual way to show children that university can also be fun!
How have you been preparing for your challenge?
I have been running since I was 16, have run one marathon and several half-marathons, and have taken part in a few Town & Gown events since settling in Oxford. I just love running, so I haven’t had to run any more than I usually would. A long run every other day has kept me focused.
How have schools responded to your plans?
The response from local schools has been really encouraging. It just shows how many schools and teachers want to encourage their pupils and raise the aspirations of young people.
The 14 schools that I am stopping at include a mix of primary and secondary schools. But, I am still taking calls from teachers who want to arrange more visits. So, who knows what the final tally will be.
Visiting primary schools might surprise some people, but I don’t think it is ever too early to get children to be ambitious about their future.
‘We are very interested in breaking down the barriers pupils face in going to university, especially the top-ranked universities in the country. Increasing the contact pupils have with universities is a great way to raise the aspirations of our pupils. The coast run is a way of inspiring our pupils, allowing them to see a different side of Oxford University.’
Mr Dan Shepperson, Head of Year 8, The Charles Dickens School, Broadstairs, one of the many schools who’ve signed up to the project.
What motivated you to get involved in access?
I just really believe in Oxford, and think it is a great place to learn, and I want to attract more people to apply to study here. It is very different to what you expect, the people especially are so down to earth. The University pleasantly surprised me, and I want others to have an opportunity to experience the same, whether that be coming for a visit, or just exploring resources online like OxVlog and video content.
Background should not be a barrier to this fantastic opportunity. I did my Master’s degree here and am currently studying for a DPhil at Worcester College in 18th-century French literature. The University is changing and people from all walks of life come to Oxford, and I think Oxford does a great job of looking after students.
I’ve been working in access and outreach for just over a year now, and really enjoy it. Breaking down barriers is hard, but you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is encouraging more applications from state school students. The statistics are gradually changing, but after that the only real barrier comes from not applying.
Do you have any support measure in place to help you on your way?
Aside from training, not exactly. I will be running by myself, but a colleague will be tracing my route in a support car, just in case I need help — hopefully I won’t though.
What message do you want people to take away from following your run?
I hope to encourage more young people to think positively about their future. To do this mammoth run I had to prepare and put my mind to it, and the same applies to taking charge of your future, whether that be higher education or life in general. If I can do it, you can too!
Lena will be running from Camber Sands to Whitstable, between 8 and 12 July.
The St Hugh’s Coast Run will go through New Romney, Dymchurch, Hythe, Folkestone, Dover, Sandwich, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate, Westgate-on-Sea, Birchington and Herne Bay.
Schools signed up include the Marsh Academy, Brockhill Park Performing Arts College, the Harvey Grammar School, Sandgate Primary School, the Royal Harbour Academy, the Charles Dickens School, Hartsdown Academy and the Whitstable School.
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Want to read more? Try our articles on: Opportunity Oxford: What do the students think?, UNIQ voices — Perspectives from past UNIQ Summer School students and Coming to Oxford from a state school.
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