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Student stories

Holly Cobb: On the Realities of Being a Young Carer

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By Holly Cobb – 14th March 2024

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The fantastic Holly Cobb, one of our Zero Gravity members, chats to us about her experience as a young carer. With Young Carers Action Day 2024 being this week, Zero Gravity is speaking to our members with caring responsibilities. Holly gets real about how being a young carer can impact your academic + career trajectory - but how it can also make you into someone great.

Hey Holly! Tell us about where you study?

Hi! My name is Holly, I’m a 3rd year French and Linguistics student at Oxford, currently on a year abroad!

Nice one! Can you tell us a bit about who you care for and why?

Growing up, I was a young carer for my younger sister, who has a range of physical and neurological conditions. My mum was the primary carer, but from a young age I felt as though I had more responsibilities than some of my friends. Whilst I was lucky to have a very happy childhood, I was aware that my home life looked very different to my classmates’.

And what are your responsibilities as a young carer?

There are estimated to be almost a million young carers in the UK, meaning our lived experiences are very diverse; I can only speak for my own. I count myself far luckier than most young carers, a large number of whom are caring for over 50 hours a week from the age of 5 on top of schoolwork. A recent parliamentary report also showed that young carers miss an average of 27 school days a year due to their caring role, something I am lucky to have not been affected by.

My main responsibilities included a lot of emotional support, both for my sister and, in a way, also for my Mum. I would help with physiotherapist exercises and sometimes personal care. When out and about, I would sight guide my sister and always be on the look out for kerbs and other obstacles. She had a lot of hospital appointments and stays, and I tried to reassure and comfort her when she had surgeries coming up. It was stressful at times, but has given us a unique bond. It also meant I was a regular human target for her to throw beanbags at, one of her physio exercises (effectively NHS encouraged sister bashing).

Mandated beanbag duties! Love it - but it sounds like you were pretty busy. Did your duties as a young carer impact your journey to uni?

I felt a lot of guilt during the application process. It felt like I was two very distinct people, one excitedly researching courses and preparing for interviews, the other grappling with feelings of selfishness for moving away, knowing the extra strain it may place on my Mum. I was applying during the 2020 lockdown, at a time when my sister’s health had deteriorated quite suddenly, so it was a lot to juggle at once!

And now that you're at uni - does being a young carer change your uni experience at all?

Although I feel much less guilty than when I first started, those feelings arise from time to time. In my first term, I remember going from a day of studying straight to a college BOP (big organised party), only to check my phone for the first time the next day to find my sister had been admitted to hospital. Oxford and home can feel very detached from each other, which I find difficult at times. I probably ring home more often than my friends, to see how things are going at home. I know many young carers who stayed locally for university; they are juggling caring with full time education. In England, young adult carers who are studying or working for over 21 hours a week cannot claim Carer’s Allowance, even if the number of hours spent caring a week equates to a full time job on top of university.

For me, it has given me a real sense of perspective, and encourages me to remember that there are other things in life beyond university; my degree, although very important to me, is not the be all and end all.

And thinking past uni - when you look at your career trajectory, how does being a young carer fit into that?

Many carers struggle to find employment that is flexible and understanding of their additional responsibilities. Many young carers also worry that their CV is emptier than peers who have not faced as many barriers to accessing work experience opportunities.

When I grew up, I received wonderful support from a local young carers charity, who I now volunteer for. Having seen firsthand the power that charities have on an individual’s life has definitely shaped my career ambitions; I now would like to work in the charity sector myself!

I bet being a young carer has given you loads of amazing skills for the workplace as well, right?

Being a young carer has allowed me to become more empathetic. I think because of it, I think I have quite good interpersonal skills as I am hopefully more attuned to individual needs and wishes of people, and the different ways we all have of communicating these.

I think it has also turned me into an accidental advocate: since calling out ableist comments in the classroom, I have carried this throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I was lucky enough to speak about young carers in Parliament and Downing Street last year, and I hope to continue learning about and advocating for those most affected by social care policy in my working life.

Too right, that's incredible! Anything you wish more people knew about being a young carer?

There are estimated to be 2 young carers in every school classroom, many of whom do not realise they are caring; they simply see their responsibilities as part of normal family life. This means your coursework partner, your best friend, the person you sit next to on the bus, could all be young carers. You may even be a young carer and not realise. Caring does not have a certain “look”; it can be emotional as well as practical or physical. The experiences of a young carer looking after a parent with alcohol dependency will differ wildly from the experiences of a young carer looking after a sibling with learning disabilities. This means anyone and everyone could be, or could become, a young carer; the numbers are far higher than most people realise.

That's so true. It's a super important job with a lot of responsibility. Anything else you'd like to add?

If you feel that any parts of this resonate with you, there is a lot of support out there. Local charities offer tailored support, and all young carers are entitled to Young Carers Assessments from their local authority. I can personally attest to the difference that charity support made to me, and would thoroughly recommend to anyone who is considering reaching out.

Great advice Holly. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us. Legend.

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