My Leeds story - Leo

When youth workers helped Paige Kesemeyer during a period of homelessness, she decided she would one day do the same for others.

In this month's My Leeds Story, she tells us about her journey from homelessness, to studying as a single parent with alumni scholarship support, and qualifying as a social sciences teacher.

You can read our monthly stories about inspiring Class of 2020 graduates in our My Leeds Story Class of 2020 series, or alternatively, listen to the My Leeds Story podcast series here.

My Leeds story
Paige Kesemeyer

Your journey to Leeds was far from straightforward. Take us back to the start.

I am a first in family student from a disadvantaged background, so not the 'traditional' University of Leeds student. I had no prior qualifications, I was a single mum, living on benefits with no prospects.

The council estate I grew up on was rife with poverty, but I knew all my neighbours and I had a close group of friends. However, my home life became neglectful and I started acting out at school – I knew the isolation teacher better than my English teacher!

I was permanently excluded in year 9 meaning and although I went to college, my dream of studying dance the year after collapsed as home got worse, and I ended up homeless. I started living in the Roundabout Hostel in Sheffield for young people. It was there that I met the people who inspired me, so much so that I decided I wanted to be the person who helps kids like me when I am older.  

After having a child I wanted to ensure he had a great start in life. I knew education was my best option, and that’s when I heard about the Foundation Year in Social Sciences at Leeds – which didn’t require A-Levels. Luckily my GCSE equivalents were not yet discontinued so I was able to secure a place.

How did you find that first year?

I was sure it was a mistake. I thought university was for posh people who could afford it and you had to be really clever to even have a chance at succeeding, but this is so far from the truth.

What followed was the most transformational journey I have ever been on. I started the course in 2014, when my son was three years old. I was a single mum, living in social housing in Sheffield with no resources or support. I committed to driving the M1 every week day to be there and be ready to learn.

I was nervous but I fit in straight away, and I soon learnt so much about society and inequality. It felt like taking off a blindfold and being able to see the real world for the first time.

The staff want you to succeed and they push you and support you so much that you start to believe in yourself. I began to see that people from all walks of life belong at Leeds because their values are valid and their contributions add depth to the education we were undergoing. Intelligence, knowledge and wisdom is something that can be learnt along the way.

My first assessment got a 40, a pass. I was over the moon, and my course mates couldn’t understand why I was so pleased. I explained that I had never imagined I would pass – I came to Leeds with no idea what paraphrasing, referencing, plagiarism meant or what a module was. My final grade for the year was 74.

On completing the Foundation year, you were able to begin your degree, supported by an alumni scholarship. How did your Leeds journey progress?

I found myself at Leeds.

I tasted foods I had never tried, I went rock climbing at the Edge, I started 'Changing Perspectives' – a community led student group – and I was awarded the Fiona Williams Progression Scholarship for my community work (which then meant my Masters fees were paid for).

I also won the Rep of the Year award from the LUU and I lobbied the University to make the campus more family friendly. I travelled to London to speak in front of alumni and be a representative for parent and carer students at the NUS conference. I went to the Old Bar, ate BBQ on the terrace, explored the campus and loved every moment.

After graduating with a degree in social policy you went on to study for a Master’s degree whilst working towards the GCSEs needed to become a teacher. How did you find that challenge, particularly during a global pandemic?

It was a very different experience to what I had before. I found that structuring my days as if I was still attending seminars helped. But I missed opportunities to build new friendships and continue with my work to make the University as inclusive as possible.

I managed to use my blog and create content to support other students. I started a podcast where we spoke about what helped us to study during the pandemic – and I achieved my highest grades to date.

It was tough, but I made it and it shows how girls like me from disadvantaged backgrounds can be successful in education and wider society.

"My dream was to be the person I needed when I was younger, and I am on that path"

Paige Kesemeyer (Social Policy 2019; MA Society, Culture and Media 2020)

Do you have any advice for your fellow Leeds graduates?

I guess the moral of this story is be yourself, you will succeed but you need to put the effort in too. Utilise any skillset you have, you might think it won't help but trust me it will.

And if you are reading this and thinking about studying at Leeds, despite your age, race, class background, sexuality, disability, I say go for it. You have nothing to lose but so much to gain, and the University gains so much from a diverse student population.

2020 was the year I realised my potential and if I can do it, anyone can!

What comes next for you?

I have built so much confidence in who I am – Leeds showed me I had potential and I utilised it. My dream was to be the person I needed when I was younger, and I am on that path – I recently finished a PGCE and will soon begin teaching.

Paige's best of Leeds

Favourite place to eat in Leeds:

Almost Famous. It has THE best burgers in town.

Best lunch spot on/near campus:

Hyde Park in the warmer months

Best place to study on campus:

Study area on level 12 of the School of Sociology and Social Policy

Favourite lecture theatre:

Roger Stevens - Are you even a Leeds student if you haven't got lost in there?

Your favourite building on campus:

Without a doubt it has to be the Brotherton.

Favourite Yorkshire / Leeds phrase:

'Oreyt love'

Favourite place you visited whilst here:

The Peak District!

Best night in Leeds:

Old Bar holds too many memories to say anywhere else. Can't beat the pub quiz with course mates while having a beer and a burger after a long day studying.