Studying a foundation year — why travelling inspired me to go to university

When Kate left school she wasn’t interested in university, she wanted to travel. But after witnessing environmental issues in the places she visited, she was inspired to return to education.

Kate Hillier stood with a backpack on, stood on the edge of a rainforest, looking at mountains covered in trees with clouds across the peaks

At the start of my school career I experienced some trauma which caused me to neglect my studies — I lost interest in education and my grades reflected that.

As my time at school came to an end I never seriously considered going to university — and in fact returning to education wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do!

At that point in my life I had other priorities — I wanted to travel. Little did I know that the experiences I had while travelling would lead me back towards the idea of studying and eventually start my university journey as a ‘mature student’ at the Lifelong Learning Centre. (A mature student is over the age of 21 when they start their undergraduate course).

How travelling helped me gain new perspectives

I always knew I wanted to travel — from a young age my ears had been filled with the stories of my parents’ travels around South East Asia, America and Brazil. They taught me the importance of challenging my perception of the world, immersing myself in diverse cultures and becoming more aware of the different ways people experience life.

I was 18 when I travelled to Nepal by myself. Navigating around a chaotic world so unfamiliar to my own was challenging and exhilarating.

The culture was worlds away from anything I had seen before — I was amazed but also saddened. The people were living with mounds of plastic rubbish, thick smoke filled the air and it was difficult to breathe in some areas. Children were paving roads with tarmac in bare feet, men with missing limbs dragging themselves through the streets with no one even batting an eye.

Meeting local people ignited my passion for sustainability

Whilst in Nepal I was introduced to a charity helping women and children in the area, teaching the women to make bags out of natural fibres like hemp. Their ethos was based around sustainability, fair trade and the environment. These were subjects I had always been interested in, but coming to Nepal and witnessing first-hand the challenges people were facing made it a passion for me.

I decided to import some of their bags to England — I thought it was a great way to get involved and to hopefully help the women and share their stories. I was aware that the environmental problems being faced in the UK were only a fraction of the issues occurring in many developing countries, and I wanted to explore this more.

Seeing de-forestation motivated me to educate myself

As I kept researching and educating myself on the issues, I began to consider going back into education.

Very tall palm trees in a rainforest with a misty sky

I subsequently visited Sumatra in Indonesia, spending three months there living with local people. I was enamoured with the vibrant and loving culture — a community spirit where everything was shared, there was unbelievable generosity from people who had very little.

However, their world was being slowly encroached upon by palm oil plantations. You could walk through the immense jungle, full of life and sounds and into the silence of a plantation.

Thousands of acres of silent trees that had replaced the natural bustling homes of animals and people who previously lived there.

Kate Hillier holding and looking at a large snake in a grassy clearing in the forest

I wanted to help, to preserve the jungle and to try and let people in the outside world know what was happening. However, I felt I didn’t have sufficient knowledge to help in a meaningful way. As I kept researching and educating myself on the issues, I began to consider going back into education.

I then went to live in Colombia for a while teaching English, learning Spanish and learning about the indigenous communities there. I became very interested in the sustainable way in which indigenous tribes live, preserving their environments and allowing them to flourish.

I started to think about how much people in the Global North can learn about sustainability from people in some of the Global South communities I had visited …and I wanted to learn more myself.

My journey back into education

My time at university has been an incredible experience and going a little later in life has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

I started looking into relevant degrees I could do to increase my knowledge. I looked for weeks for the perfect course before I found the Sustainability and Environmental Management BSc at the University of Leeds. However, I didn’t meet the entry requirements to apply to go directly onto the degree.

I was delighted to find there was an alternative route via the Interdisciplinary Science with Foundation Year course at the Lifelong Learning Centre.

Support when I needed it

There’s always someone to turn to if you’re struggling, and this has remained the case throughout the pandemic.

A room of mature students listening to a member of staff stood next to a flipchart. The member of staff and students are laughing and smiling.

Returning to studying was more challenging than I had anticipated, it affected my mental health and I did struggle at first. However, the support I received was incredible.

My tutors were so friendly, down to earth and easy to talk to. They helped me realise I had specific learning needs and arranged for me to be tested for dyslexia. They gave me pre-filled lecture notes so I could go over it at my own pace and any time I had questions or needed extra support, they would make the time to help me. Sometimes I struggled to keep up with the pace of the lectures, but they were all recorded so I worked around it.

Foundation years are not easy, they’re meant to challenge you and make sure that you’re willing to put the work in to succeed at university level. I’m so glad I did it — it gave me a reality check on how hard you need work to do well at university, but also showed me how well students at Leeds — and at the LLC in particular — are supported throughout their journey.

There’s always someone to turn to if you’re struggling, and this has remained the case throughout the pandemic.

How my knowledge and confidence has grown

I’m now in the second year of my degree. My time at university has been an incredible experience and going a little later in life has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

I have definitely benefitted from being a mature student. I think being a bit older made my priorities different… I know that the social side to university is very important, but to me it felt less so. I have been so determined to do well in my studies, having some life experience meant that the opportunity to study has felt like a gift, rather than just the next step. I know if I had have listened to my tutors at college, I would have picked the wrong degree.

I knew I had a passion for sustainability and the environment, but now I can see the direction I want my life to go in and (more or less) how to get there!

I have grown in my knowledge of environmental issues, history, transport, development and so much more. I’m more driven and excited by these subjects than ever.

After my degree, I would like to create and build projects locally and internationally that can aid economic and social development. I am currently gaining volunteering experience with an organisation and am planning an international project that I hope to carry out in the next few years. In the future, I’d absolutely love to work for the UN development project working with indigenous communities.

We’re at a pivotal moment in history for change makers, for people who want to make a difference. Whatever it is you want to do, to learn and to study enables your mind and outlook to develop.

I’ve had many ups and downs throughout my university experience, but I know that I’ve changed for the better. It was possibly the biggest challenge of my life, and the fear of failure was overwhelming at points. I just kept reminding myself that if I let fear overcome my mind, how will I ever grow or learn?

They always said to me in Indonesia ‘never try, never know’ and that’s now something I tell myself over and over if I feel nervous or anxious.

Never try, never know.

Kate Hillier sat on top of a mountain, looking across a deep valley. In the far distance, smoke is pluming out of an active volcano

Kate Hillier, Sustainability and Environmental Management BSc at the University of Leeds




The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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