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Meet Sarah: What is Life Like as a Student Carer?

Sarah Agyemang experiences all the same stresses of every other university student. She worries about essay deadlines, exams and plans for the future. Sarah also has another set of challenges that she faces as a student carer. Every day she balances her university work with caring for her younger brother Emmanuel, who is disabled. While the responsibilities of young carers are rarely discussed, it is estimated there are well over 700,000 in the UK [1]. 39% of carers aged 5-17 say no one in their school is even aware that they have caring responsibilities [2] even though unpaid carers save the taxpayer and eyewatering £132 billion a year [3]. Sarah, a third year Religion, Politics and Society student at King’s says the lack of understanding of what carers do has had a real effect on her life. ‘At school I felt like […] not a lot of teachers understood. If I had a bad attendance they would be like “why do you have a bad attendance?” and I’m like “it’s not my fault. I’m ill because I have sickle cell and I’m also a young carer”’. Socially, she says friends struggled to understand that she was ‘not just babysitting my brother on a Saturday. I’m taking care of him every single day of the week’.

Sarah began transitioning into her caring responsibilities at 6, but was officially designated as a carer at 8 after an assessment by Actions For Family Carers, Essex. While she says caring is difficult to define due to its individual nature, she describes being a young carer as ‘taking on a lot of responsibility at a young age to make sure the person you’re taking care of has a good quality of life. [It’s about] making sacrifices for someone that you love’.

She says the most challenging aspect of being a student carer is the balancing act required. ‘There will be times where I can’t take care of Emmanuel because I’ll have to do uni work and times where I can’t do uni work because I have to take care of Emmanuel’. The pressure coming from both her responsibilities and herself to live up to her own high expectations can be massive. What then does the university do to support their students who are carers?

King’s lists your personal tutor, the counselling service and the chaplains as the primary points of contact for student carers. While Sarah says her department has provided her with excellent support, she first had to overcome her own reluctance to ask for help. ‘I definitely had that fear but my uni would judge me’. She however says how they’ve not made her ‘feel like I’ve failed [at] getting everything in at the same time as everyone else. TRS (Theology and Religious Studies department) has been so good and understanding […]. I am a carer and there will be times where I can’t do my essay for a straight month and so I just need that extra time’.

That being said, there are definitely ways King’s could improve their carers support. Sarah says the counselling service has no specific carer support and she has to use the same facilities (and navigate the same notorious wait time) as the general student population.

Another significant challenge student carer’s face is from the government. The Conservatives classed caring responsibilities as low skilled in their planned new immigration points system [4]. This was a slap in the face to Sarah, especially after Covid and the national show of support through clap for carers. ‘You might see […] me giving my brother a shower as low skilled but that actually helps him a lot in calming him down and making sure his temperature is okay. […] I also think the biggest constant misconception is the government as well, not realising the significance of what carers, especially unpaid carers, give back to society and back to the care sector’.

Looking forward, Sarah is hopeful that the recent census, which collected information on caring responsibilities, could lead to the ‘system overhaul’ she says is needed. ‘It’s not good enough to say that this is an estimate of how many young carers there are [and] that’s it, we’re not going to help them out, we’re going to kind of demonise them and say you’re low skilled. So I think that with the census, hopefully some good policy would come in supporting unpaid carers too because I’ve definitely seen hesitancy in saying “I’m a carer” knowing that you’re not paid’.

Sarah hopes to go into the education sector and continue her work helping others. Most third-year students have anxiety about this transitional stage of their life, but for unpaid carers there is an added element of concern. ‘I have some feelings of anxiety […] I didn’t think that I was going to go to uni at 18 and I genuinely thought that I had to take a year out to take care of my brother. So the fact that I even got into Kings, and I actually went to Kings instead of my local University that was a shock to me. Hopefully […] whatever institution I go into they will be able to provide the same support that I have received at Kings’. She also warns future employers to value student carers. ‘I hope employers can see there is going to be an increase of young careers coming out of university and that they need support. I hope employers see that it’s not a burden to employ someone who is a young career, but is actually a good thing because we developed so many skills’.

After nearly three years navigating the complicated juggling act of being a student carer, she has some advice for incoming students in her shoes. ‘You can go to University and you can achieve what you want to achieve. That sounds cheesy but you can […] Make sure that you ask your department, you ask your tutor for support, and also the student union […]. If you state that you are a carer, slowly and naturally you will open up to what you are going through and they will be able to support you […]. My advice is just to, no matter how long it takes at University, (like, I finished second year in August), […] don’t be ashamed to ask for extensions, don’t be ashamed to stay on a little bit longer to get your degree done. There is no timetable, there’s no ticking time bomb in getting your degree. Take it at your own pace’.

What strikes me the most about Sarah is how much she loves her brother. For many people, it would be easy to become cynical, but Sarah’s dedication to her family is overwhelming. For all the challenges, she says the most rewarding part is seeing her brother when ‘he’s happy, he’s energetic, and he’s smiling and knowing that I was able to help him through. The most rewarding part is just seeing him smile, seeing him do the things that he loves to do’.

If you’d like to learn more, here are some educational Instagram pages you can visit: @wearecarers, @carers.trust

 

Katie is a Religion and Politics student at KCL. She enjoys listening to Harry Styles, watching Twilight and finding cats in the street.
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