Change Maker: Suet Au championing social mobility

16 January 2020

  • Suet Au defied background to ace her A Levels and reach university
  • The undergraduate now urges others in deprived areas to follow her path 
  • Suet champions social mobility causes while studying degree
  • She declares "everybody deserves an equal chance in life"

Growing up helping her parents with their family business, a Chinese takeaway in the Black Country town of Wednesbury, Suet Au admits university was not an obvious or easy route.

Neither of her parents had attended university and with just 27 per cent in Wednesbury achieving five or more GCSEs at grade 5+, compared to the national average of 42 per cent, aiming for a Russell Group university was unusual to say the least.

Wednesbury is a former mining town with unemployment twice as high as the rest of England. In 2016, a report from female rights charity Plan International UK identified poverty, teenage pregnancy and low life expectancy in the area as among some of the most extreme for girls nationally.

However, bright and determined, her teachers at Sandwell Academy nominated Suet for the University of Warwick’s UniTracks programme, a national outreach initiative to boost student numbers from disadvantaged areas. It is now known as The Warwick Young Achievers’ Programme and invites bright youngsters from under-represented backgrounds to sample university life, hopefully inspiring them to apply.

The regular campus tours, talks and events opened Suet’s eyes to a new world of possibilities, one which she realised was not out of reach for girls who spent their nights studying while jotting down orders at their parents’ takeaway.

“Being the first generation of my family to apply for university certainly dawned on me as I went through the process,” says Suet, who is now in her fourth and final year of her BSc Management with Finance degree. “I was so grateful to have the support of my parents, but I knew it wasn’t a world in which they were familiar.

“In the surrounding borough, many pupils didn’t go onto university but I worked hard and had excellent teachers to be in a position where I could. I know many schools and students, unfortunately, lack the resources and support they need in less affluent areas to ensure that option is the norm."

UniTracks gave Suet extra motivation to study hard and aim for a Russell Group university. And that she did, gaining four As at A Level in Maths, English Literature, History and Geography, granting her the pick of the country’s top universities.

“UniTracks really helped,” says Suet. “Knowing I could get to a university like Warwick was definitely a motivation. Through UniTracks we got an insight into life on the campus and what was taught.

“There were lots of trips and not just to Warwick. They took us to other universities, which was really handy in helping me choose where to go, because it was difficult to see other universities all the time - it wasn’t financially sensible or convenient due to my parents’ business.

“University is expensive, but it definitely helps that there are student loans, plus I am on the Warwick Scholars Programme, which certainly helps to alleviate the cost.”

How Suet Au champions social mobility

Suet’s own journey has inspired her to give something back. She has plunged herself into the social mobility cause, with her voluntary work earning her a Student Social Mobility Award in 2018 from upReach, a charity supported by the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission, at a ceremony held at the House of Lords.

She says: “Of course, I feel that there are many more capable of doing what I am doing and attending a top university. It is just that self-confidence and awareness can be hard to find if it seems distant and unattainable.

“Coming from modest means myself, I believe social mobility is a shared responsibility to help others from similar backgrounds. I would be flattered if anyone called me a role model, but I think when you are committed to lifting yourself up, that’s a commitment that extends to helping others do the same. Social mobility is a team effort.”

Suet has worked with Code First: Girls, a not-for-profit social enterprise delivering free education to girls to reduce the gender imbalance in tech, where just 17 per cent of the workforce is female. She has delivered coding lessons for girls across the Warwick campus, encouraging them to move into the industry.

The 21-year-old has also been mentoring first year students as part of the HerCapital programme, a campaign by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity that aims to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds become female leaders. Suet has helped first-year students apply for work experience placements, practice interviews and given them tips and advice to make the most of university.

And on her year-long placement at investment consultancy Aon, Suet took on the role of the firm’s gender IQ representative, organising events, educating staff and providing support for under-represented groups at the firm.

“Wherever my career takes me, I know I want to incorporate social mobility work,” says Suet. “I want to make sure under-represented groups have a voice. I want to see these young people get into places where they are not commonly represented and where barriers still exist.

“I feel strongly that everybody deserves an equal chance in life, no matter their background. I’m proud to be from a town in the Black Country, and I shouldn’t and won’t discard that or be disparaged for it in my profession.

“That’s what I would like others to understand and harness, that they have the talent and that their circumstances can be strengths. Make the most of the help offered from places such as Warwick and other institutions to unlock your potential and do what you want to do.”

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