Sometimes it’s easy to forget that not all people are able to sail through a university year without the help of extra support and mentoring. I have certainly learnt that this year but Karen Thomas has been my life saver! Having Hodgekins Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, I’ve been in and out of hospital having chemotherapy and other forms of treatment to get me well again. I’ve been able to stay at Leeds University with the help of Karen, who works closely with the Emma Maltby Memorial Fund and the Teenage Cancer Trust to allow children, teenagers and young adults carry on their studies throughout their time in hospital.
Her Campus: You started off at Leeds University. What did you study and did you have a good time?
Karen: I graduated from Leeds University with a degree in English Language last year, and I absolutely loved every minute of it (Although I can say now that the memories of endless days in Edward Boyle researching sociolinguistic variation in dialects have started to fade!). As for my time at University, coming to Leeds was the best decision I’ve ever made, I met so many amazing people and completely fell in love with the city as well.
HC: What made you decide to take on such a career?
K: I’ve never been the sort of person interested in big business; I’m more driven to do something where results are measured in happiness and positive results for a person, rather than profit margins or sales figures. I saw this job advertised last summer and thought “wow!”. It was a role I’d never heard of before, as it is a position that’s currently unique to Leeds, but thought it sounded great, as a way of giving young people support and a focus whilst they’re undergoing such a difficult time in their lives.
HC: What does your job entail? What kind of people do you support and help?
K: I work with 13-25 year olds being treated for cancer so the job can be incredibly varied; inevitably the needs of a year 10 pupil will be very different to the needs of a 21 year old! For younger patients, I spend a lot of time arranging things so that they are still able to carry on with their GCSEs and achieve the results they deserve, despite often missing over a year of school due to treatment. Getting patients back into school can be a huge part of my job – for example, imagine being a 15 year old girl, already insecure about your body image and fitting in with your peers, and then being faced with going back into school with no hair after months away from the classroom. I’m here to work with the patients and make them feel as comfortable as possible about going back to school, making sure they can cope with the social anxieties, as well as getting back into the swing of things academically. For older patients, my role can be anything from acting as a key point of contact between University or college, to being a careers advisor for patients who need help working out where they’re headed after treatment and how they can make the most out of their future.
HC: You help students dealing with life threatening illnesses carry on with their further education and achieve their qualifications. In what ways do you help students to do this?
K: Students who have just been diagnosed with cancer can find that their world has been turned upside down and they start to question whether they can still carry on as normal with their education. I’ll always make sure to meet new patients if they’re still studying and can help them out by talking to their University or college if they haven’t done so already. I also get in touch with them to ask about things like deferring their place on the course until after treatment, getting extensions for assignment deadlines or arranging it so patients can sit exams in hospital if they need to. Every patient is different and I’ll always do everything I can to make sure that they have the opportunity to carry on with their course. Even if it involves picking up exam papers and invigilating exams myself at somebody’s bedside!
HC: Was there a reason that made you want to become a specialist learning mentor? Was it a personal experience or anything like that?
K: Studying is stressful enough without having to worry about fighting cancer at the same time, something that no young person ever expects to have to deal with. Being given the opportunity to help young people carry on doing what they love whilst they’re undergoing difficult treatment really appealed to me as a way of giving people a fair chance to achieve everything they are capable of.
HC: Finally what kind of charities and organisations do you work with and what kind of things do you arrange for students?
K: I work closely with a local Yorkshire based charity called The Emma Maltby Memorial Fund, who actually are the organisation that fund my position, as well as another mentor who works with the 5-12 year old patients. The EMMF raise money so that a young person can have a mentor who is specifically there to deal with their education. They also sponsor equipment or courses for cancer patients who want to study but might struggle with finding the money to do so, for example if they are unable to work etc. I also get involved with activities run by, the Teenage Cancer Trust funded, Youth Support Coordinators as a way of getting to know patients in a more informal way so they feel comfortable talking to me about issues they may have with their education.