When I arrived at Manchester Metropolitan University in September 2014 I had been estranged from my father for a little over three years, and apart from my best friend, I knew no-one else in my situation. But after reading about other estranged people's stories through the charity Stand Alone, it got me thinking. If one in five families go through estrangement at some point in their lives, and many people become estranged between the ages of 16 and 24, then surely I wasn't the only one at MMU? That's where my idea for the Ohana society was born.
Independent students have perhaps a more difficult journey into university than most. These students who don't have a family network need the full loan and grants, but the evidence that they need to gather to access this type of finance is based on strict guidelines, and the process of finding it is highly daunting to potential and continuing students.
Coming up with a name for the society was problematic, as I didn't want it to be something that obviously revealed someone's situation if they weren't ready to share it with their friends or classmates. I chose Ohana as, in Hawaiian, the term means 'family; blood, adoptive or otherwise'. This perfectly encapsulated what I wanted my society to be: like a family.
The Bank of Mum and Dad doesn't exist for a lot of estranged students. And in spite of getting through the Student Finance hurdle and receiving the full financial support, many students still struggle to find accommodation, pay their rent throughout the year on top of covering the costs of food, other living costs and maintaining a social life with their peers. This leads to working multiple part-time jobs in order to cover these extra costs. The pressure for us is higher. This is where the Ohana Society can help, providing cheap or free activities for estranged students and giving them the chance to get together with those who understand their situation and have a social life that they may be lacking .
In order to set up my society, I needed a committee. Being in a position where I knew no-one else in my situation, this proved somewhat paradoxical; I was setting up the society because I didn't know anyone else who was estranged, but I needed someone else who was estranged to be on my committee. I decided the only way I was going to do that was to get the word out about my society through talking at the beginning of lectures and hope that someone wanted to get involved.
I talked to a couple of my classmates about my predicament, when one of them told me that she was estranged from her father as well. I wanted to fill as many of my committee positions as I could, so I spoke with my tutor about arranging a talk in lectures about the society. I realised two of my other classmates were stood at the door listening to our conversation- as we left the building one of them explained that they too were estranged and would be interested in being part of my society.
The stigma attached to cutting contact with family makes it harder for those who haven't experienced it to empathise. The amount of times I've been told to 'make up' with my dad because "you only get one" leaves me feeling frustrated. My reasons for cutting contact didn't even seem to matter. Many people don't know what estrangement means, let alone the reasons behind it, so another focus is to educate people in MMU who aren't aware and tackle the stigma that comes with it. Not all families or family members are loving and supportive, and some of us have to start fending for ourselves a bit earlier than others.
Estranged students also have to take into consideration what they're going to do during the holidays. Not only is there a large focus on 'families' during Christmas, Eid and other holidays, estranged students need to consider where they're going to stay over the long summer holiday period. With talk of holidays, Ohana looks to provide a safe haven for students to talk about these difficulties and learn to find their own way to 'reclaim' these difficult holiday periods.
The fact that there were two students in one of my classes alone that are in a similar position to myself, but that we didn't know until the conversation arose, shows that estrangement is something that needs to be talked about more in a university environment. There needs to be a society for these students to meet and interact with others in their situation so they can see that they really aren't the only ones going through it. Knowing the statistics is one thing, but to actually see that there are others in your position- be it in the form of media or in person- makes estranged people feel less alone in their situation.
Although I know my society can't help the members financially, I want to help them with the feelings of isolation, and give them the support network they cannot get from their family. I want the members of my society to realise that they aren't alone in the struggles that they have faced, and they aren't alone in those they will face in the future. I also want people who aren't estranged to realise that cutting contact from your family doesn't make you a bad person and the reasons are often real and justifiable. I want people who aren't estranged to understand that just because "you only get one mother/father/sibling/family etc." doesn't mean that they will treat you with respect, care or are automatically healthy for your life.
It's no surprise that students who are estranged are at a greater disadvantage then those with supportive families. All in all, I want my society to help make the lives of estranged students at MMU a little easier, and make the MMU community a more estrangement-friendly place. And if I can manage that, then I'll be happy.
Stand Alone has been supported by The Big Lottery fund and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to work with more estranged students like Laura to set up their own societies in their University setting. If you are a student and can relate to these issues, please get in touch: email@example.com
The Office for Fair Access have published a topic briefing about Estranged Students: