Helping to overcome barriers to education

Sian Pierce once thought she was destined not to attend university. However, a combination of her own determination and scholarship support made possible by a legacy gift has seen her through an LSE education and inspired her to play a part in tackling low social mobility.

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Growing up in a working class family in Leicestershire, Sian believes she had to overcome a number of ‘hidden psychological barriers’ to convince herself that she could study at a prestigious institution such as LSE. "University wasn’t really an option for me,” she recalls. “I wasn’t encouraged to go to university as it just wasn’t a thing people in my family did. But I’m stubborn and eventually realised what I was capable of, and I knew that I wanted to achieve more, so I followed my heart.”

At LSE she was a recipient of the Bence Scholarship, a fund set up by the estate of Peter Bence (BSc Economics 1965), represented by his niece, Sarah Bolderstone. It has supported ten UK undergraduate students over the age of 25 since 2005.

Sian admits to being apprehensive when she started at LSE. “My expectations were that it was going to be intense – and it was,” she said. “Perhaps more than I anticipated. It’s a very competitive environment.” Having completed her studies, Sian is now fulfilling the ambition she held when she enrolled for her BSc in Mathematics and Economics, by entering the finance industry with a role as a graduate analyst at HSBC Private Bank.

She believes the challenges she confronted as an LSE student helped her to prepare for the sector. “Going into this industry, you need quite a thick skin, and LSE has helped me to develop that,” she asserts. “It’s also helped me to be more analytical, questioning things to a much larger extent. Above all else, it’s increased my self belief: I’m a lot more resilient than I used to be. I feel justified in my reasoning and I no longer question my capabilities or let my upbringing hold me back.”

To highlight her transformation, she recalls a time after her A levels when she specifically declined a group interview for a retail job, due to anxiety: “I would never avoid that sort of thing now, and I think a much of that is to do with LSE.”

Sian has also seen how self confidence can affect other young people, through contrasting experiences while working with disadvantaged children and those with a private education background in Leicestershire. “When I tutored these kids, I noticed a striking difference in mentality. It is quite apparent that some quite simply don’t believe that they can achieve more than has been suggested to them – they are pigeonholed and once they are given a target grade, they don’t look to aim higher.”

She believes that this ultimately translates into a disinclination to attend university. “They are not able to recognise what would come out of higher education. Fuelled further by the prospect of student debt, they simply do not believe they have that choice,” she adds.

She hopes that by sharing her own experiences she has helped to change attitudes. “While tutoring I worked hard on trying to improve the mind sets of the children, and it is especially fulfilling when they achieve better grades than they expected,” she said.

Sian’s intentions to give back and play her part in increasing social mobility extend even further. Having appreciated the value of the scholarship support she received, she now intends to reciprocate for the next generation. “In addition to the scholarship itself, which meant I could afford to focus on my studies, the psychological support from the Bolderstones has been priceless – they have essentially welcomed me into their family. Without my scholarship, I would not have been able to attend LSE. Now I want to set up my own initiative to help kids that are on free school meals. It’s one of the most important things to me going forward.”