From summer school to University

Josh Lilly

For a very long time, ‘university’ and ‘degree’ were just two words that signified the far future, things to talk about but not to worry about.  However, in a heartbeat, I was standing in Year 12 and those words were suddenly on my doorstep – I had big decisions to make.  Over a hundred universities and thousands of courses and I had to narrow them down to five.

With the encouragement of my Head of Sixth, I applied to a shadowing scheme run by the University of Cambridge, where I spent a few days shadowing a Maths undergraduate.  I really enjoyed the opportunity and the experience provided me with two very important pieces of knowledge: it confirmed that I wanted to do Physics rather than Maths and secondly, it was the first time I learned of the Sutton Trust Summer School Programme (during a Q&A session with admissions staff, they encouraged students to apply to the programme).

The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust (a charity that champions social mobility) runs summer schools for disadvantaged students at leading universities across both the UK and US – it gives you a chance to live as an undergraduate student for a week!  In addition to attending a state school with little history of sending students to top universities, I was the first person in my family to study for a degree – therefore, the summer school seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to get a taste of university life.  As I was already interested in going to Durham University (the Physics department looked amazing), this seemed like the natural choice when applying for the Sutton Trust Programme.

I was lucky enough to be accepted onto Durham University’s Sutton Trust Summer School to study Physics (cue lots of celebration and maybe a few nerves).  The summer quickly rolled around and I was off to Van Mildert College!  The instant I arrived, I was greeted by cheering, smiling and dancing student mentors – this definitely set the tone for the week!  Academic sessions and information seminars were interspersed with social events and activities, mirroring what a real university week could look like.  While on the summer school, I got to work on a project in the Physics department, getting to interact with insightful lecturers and being able to use some fancy equipment in the lab!  Throughout the entire week, we were looked after by our mentor, Megan.  Initially, I was very worried I wouldn’t fit in at such a prestigious university, but the scheme showed me that people from all different walks of life attend Durham.  All the student mentors were so friendly, kind and willing to go above and beyond (especially Megan!) – and this, the community that I met on my summer school, was the main reason that Durham didn’t just become one of my five choices on UCAS, it became the only university I wanted to go to.  

Durham University Student Ambassadors

Studying Physics at Durham

Fast forward to results day and, after successfully meeting my offer (which was reduced because I passed my project on the summer school), I was heading to Durham to study Physics at Josephine Butler College!  Being thrust into this new environment in first year was daunting.  No longer were there three people in my physics class, there were now 300!  Naturally, the work was tough, but there was a lot of support, with tutors and advisors (as well as my lecturers) to assist in my learning.  Aside from academic work, I got involved in lots of sports and societies (with rounders, basketball and astronomy to name just a few).  During the exam period, I was making an effort to play sport 4-6 times a week – this gave me a chance to not only get some fresh air, but to catch-up with my friends.  Through A-levels, I had been solely focussed upon my exams but at university, I had made sure to have a good work/life balance, making sure I saw my friends and got enough sleep.  Post-exams, most people stayed in Durham for a few weeks – this is when the majority of the fun college balls and events happened (it was a brilliant way to round off the year, surrounded by friends and celebrating all of our experiences).  During this period, I was astounded to receive an email informing me that I had won the Rochester Award as the top performing first year science undergraduate (averaging 90% across all my modules).  To this day, I am in shock.  I credit my results on maintaining a good work/life balance. 

Josephine Butler College ball

It’s all come full circle

Jumping forward and I am now about to start my third year on my Physics degree (in that time, I have also become a Physics course rep).  A lot of things have changed since I started at university: my hatred of practical work has morphed into me now loving labs and experimental physics, I now actually do sports and my confidence has improved massively.  However, two things have remained constant: from the second I first arrived at Durham for my summer school, it has always felt like a home-away-from-home and secondly, I still can’t cook.  My Sutton Trust Summer School gave me the confidence to apply to Durham University – it showed me that Durham was a place and a community that I would love living in, it was somewhere where I could follow my dreams and I haven’t looked back since.  I cannot recommend the scheme enough; I genuinely believe applying to the Sutton Trust Summer School Programme at Durham University is one of the best decisions I have ever made. 

Coming full circle, I now mentor students on the Durham Sutton Trust Programme; it is an incredibly rewarding role where I hope to give prospective students the confidence to apply to leading universities like Durham, to show them that, no matter your background, you can succeed.

Josh mentoring for the Sutton Trust summer school programme

Find out more

The Sutton Trust Summer Schools and how to apply.

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Josh Lilly

Hi, I'm Josh, a third year Durham physicist from Josephine Butler College. I fell in love with Durham while on a Sutton Trust Summer School and I haven’t looked back since. The college community really set Durham apart for me – it is your little family away from home. When I’m not watching movies/TV with friends or playing sport, you might find me in the lab trying to optimise a laser system or calibrate an x-ray detector. After I have completed my integrated masters (MPhys), I hope to study for a PhD in experimental physics and then move into a research career. I am really passionate about educational outreach and encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to higher education.

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