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An inspiring journey: Irish Traveller Graduates with a First-Class Degree from St Mary's

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Chelsea’s story is an incredibly inspiring one.

When she left school in 2012, she didn’t know what her next steps would be and didn’t think university was the best choice for her.

Little did she know she would not only be the first one in her family to attend university but would also graduate in 2018 with a first-class degree in physical and sport education from St Mary’s University in Twickenham.

Chelsea McDonagh is a 23-year-old Irish Traveller who grew up in south London, where her parents settled in the 90s.

“Settling meant that we could get a proper education. It gives you a balance between maintaining your culture but also being able to engage in mainstream society,” Chelsea said.

Research by Kings’ College London found that people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are statistically less likely to go on to higher education compared to the general population.

Chelsea felt very discouraged to apply and had nobody to turn to for her during the application process.

“My parents couldn’t guide me through Ucas because they didn’t know how to,” she said.

At some point she said she even considered withdrawing her application because she thought she wouldn’t be good enough.

It was the support she received from her friends and teachers that made a difference for her and gave her the confidence to apply.

According to Ucas, only 70 students identifying as Gypsy, Roma or Traveller (GRT) in the UK were accepted into university last year, compared to 350,000 nationally. Some of the barriers this group faces include cultural barriers, discrimination in schools, bullying, racism and parental lack of knowledge and experience of the UK system.

“A lot of people will tick White British or White Irish instead of Traveller when applying so that they don’t face discrimination,” she said.

Although her parents told Chelsea they couldn’t afford paying her tuition fees, Chelsea was able to fund her studies through the student loan.

“When speaking about the £9,000 uni fees, my mum said we can’t afford this, we don’t have the money,” Chelsea said.

Chelsea is enthusiastic about her experience at St Mary’s University and is now doing a master’s in education at Kings College London.

“My only piece of advice for a young Traveller thinking of applying would be, ‘Don’t be scared to do it, find what’s right for you and go for it.”

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