BA (Hons) Education Studies* graduate Andy Grace is the University's Equality Diversity and Inclusion Advisor, a role that he loves. He talks about his journey from bullied school pupil to passionate equality advocate via a career in retail, an incredible trip to Israel and a university degree that enabled him to find and explore his passions.
* BA (Hons) Education Studies has been renamed BA (Hons) Education
I’d been in a job that I really didn’t like for a long time and I really needed to do something about it. I just needed a change and it was a kind of now or never moment, so I took the plunge from a full-time, well paid job to go to university when I was 23.
Today I'm the University’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion Advisor which basically means that I try to make sure that everyone is treated fairly, which is really easy to say and a lot more difficult to do.
So there’s the fun community engagement side to my job, going to Pride in Plymouth, the Respect and Hope festivals, working with local community and refugee groups. Then there’s the really important policy stuff, making sure that we are supportive of our staff, and that we’ve got places that staff and students can go to talk about any issues that they might be facing – so it’s quite a broad role and I love it!
I was drawn to education because I was bullied so much through school and I didn’t want those experiences to have been a waste, I didn’t want them to define me but I wanted to use them for something.
I wanted to understand how discrimination, harassment and bullying is so prevalent in schools and why, no matter the range of policies and interventions, it’s still there and how we can tackle it. It became something that I was passionate about and, until I started studying, I hadn't realised just how passionate I was.
So I went to an open day and I went to few talks about different subjects and the BA (Hons) Education Studies one was just the best. It’s hard to describe but there was something about the lecturers' passion in their topic, that and their knowledge, that just completely sold me on it. They genuinely cared and they took time to speak to everyone individually about what they wanted from the degree.
Originally I thought I would go go into teaching, but the course opened my eyes to the wider issues, the institutional issues, the bureaucracy that can sometimes stop equality advancing.
Researching education for peace in Israel
I chose to write my dissertation on 'peace education in Israel and the Palestinian territories'. In Israel, education is segregated with separate schools for Jews, Arabs and Christians. Only six schools in the country teach Arabs and Jews or Israelis and Palestinians together, and these schools have amazing results in terms of academic results but also in peace initiatives, and in cooperation between different communities. I read about one of these schools in my first year and was fascinated. After a successful application to the Roland Levinsky Memorial Fund I was off.
It was the most incredible experience, seeing two groups known for being in constant conflict really working hard at peace. A few weeks before my visit one of the schools suffered an arson attack, but this school and its families came together to help clean up, and what was designed to tear them apart, had brought them together and made them stronger. That would not have been possible without the education they were receiving.
The children were receiving lessons in Hebrew and Arabic, and had an Arab and a Jewish teacher in every single classroom, and in contrast to other parts of Jerusalem that were more segregated, divided, tense and angry, the school was like and oasis of peace.
My dissertation included a lot of self reflection, allowing me to question my own preconceptions and biases. I used what I’d learnt from the schools to form some basics of what makes good peace education.
Finding my voice
When I was doing my degree we talked about diverse issues within education, but I felt that there could have been more of a focus on LGBT issues, because of my experience of how homophobia had really damaged my school life. The lecturers were incredibly receptive, they listened to me and reshaped some of the module to make sure that there was an equal emphasis on LGBT issues as well as race, ethnicity, gender and social class, and then invited me back to lecture on it which I still do now twice a year.
It's something that I’m really proud of because I was a mature student and had been out of education for years, but I plucked up the courage to speak up and that was probably the point that I realised that if you use your voice then things will change eventually. That has really helped with my job and finding where I want to go. I act a bit like a professional activist so I can stand up in meetings and say 'no this is wrong, I think you should do it this way', it is the experience of my degree which gave me the confidence to be able to push for change.
Working in higher education (HE) is never easy, it’s challenging but it’s worthwhile. I had amazing lecturers who were genuinely interested in what I wanted to do, and wanted to help me get there, and it’s made me quite protective of HE and want to make sure that It does work for everyone.