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Student stories

Sitting down with Fiona

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By Zero Gravity – 8th August 2023

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So how did you get started with Zero Gravity?

I got involved in Zero Gravity in Year 12. The idea of studying English at Oxford was becoming more and more appealing to me but I had no idea about the UCAS process, especially for Cambridge and Oxford. I only ever knew about those unis from hearing that “so-and-so's son's cousin has gone to Cambridge or gone to Oxford”. It would never be somebody that I actually knew - it was always this mythical person. I was quite intimidated by the idea of going, it felt a very elitist place and a place where only really special people go.

I was quite intimidated by the idea of going, it felt a very elitist place and a place where only really special people go.

So I Googled online: “How to get into Oxford”, and this program which was the predecessor to Zero Gravity came up.

It was really small but I signed up anyway and I got a mentor called Susie who was incredible. An amazing, amazing woman. Despite the fact that I was in Year 12 and she was at university doing exams, she took me on and did weekly, sometimes biweekly meetings with me, and gave me so much time and energy. Now everyday at university, I think about the dedication of these mentors I had: balancing an Oxford degree and still taking time out to help someone - it's just amazing. Zero Gravity attracts people who really want to do good in the world.

Zero Gravity attracts people who really want to do good in the world.

What kind of stuff did she help you with?

She helped me with loads of stuff, but what stands out the most is her help with Old English [a module that all first year English students have to undertake]. She anticipated that this would be hard for me at university because I just had none of that background knowledge on the root words and technical terms in English. Because she anticipated that, when I arrived I had some feeling of confidence when I was sitting in these rooms with people who had already read these texts.

My second mentor Fanella really helped me nearer to my interview stage. She related to me on a lot of levels in terms of identity and she gave me a bit of the true low down on university. She was great.

So you were one of our very first mentees! What’s it like being at Oxford University after it seemed so impossible at first?

Both of my parents are refugees from Kosovo which was under the rule of Serbia for a long time. There was a war in the 90s which meant that my parents came here at a really young age. Both of my parents had to grow up really, really young - they didn't have access to the education that they wanted to. But they're also both incredibly hard working because of it - we grew up in East London on a council estate and I remember my parents literally just working from sunrise to sunset.

And so being here feels like such a privilege because during the war, people who were educated were targeted in Kosovo because it was a way of destabilising the community. So teachers were targeted, and academic professors, students, etc. And I’m here and I’m studying my degree with no limitations. That feels like such a luxury given that just a generation ago people were literally killed for it.

In my country, during the war, people who were educated were targeted… and I’m here studying for my degree with no limitations. That feels like such a luxury, given that just a generation ago, people were literally killed for it.

That’s incredible. So did that shape how you used your Zero Gravity Scholarship money?

Definitely! I used the money to travel to Kosovo in my first year and undergo research into my family’s history. Because of the war, there are huge gaps in my knowledge about where I’m from. So I went back and interviewed the head of the archives, the head of the library, and learned a bit more about my family history. I learned for example about my granddad who was a librarian and teacher. He taught literature and I've been studying literature. It's really nice. I’m getting more in touch with my background.

I knew before university that I’d need to find something that I could really ground myself in. And that was my family history. At university, I'm away from my family and people that are like me - from East London, or Kosovo, or those who have my specific identity: Muslim, state-educated, or from a lower socioeconomic background. It's really hard to find that. I want to have a sense of who I am, and where I come from: a sense of self definition. So the Zero Gravity Scholarship has been amazing for that. It's really helped me to pay for my travel to Kosovo, as well as funding trips to archives and the national library.

This then crossed over into my professional confidence. I want to pursue a career in diplomacy, and the Zero Gravity Scholarship has given me the confidence and finances to reach out to diplomats and embassies so that I can organise visits myself to go in and interview them. So that has really helped in my own personal creative development and my career development - in fact I recently got into the final stage in my application for a summer internship for the Civil Service.

The Zero Gravity Scholarship has given me the confidence and finances to reach out to diplomats and embassies

That’s amazing, congratulations! Did you use it for anything else?

Just day to day life really. You're not allowed to work at Oxford, and even if you get formal permission, the workload doesn't really allow you to. So the Scholarship has literally helped me be here. In fact, I don't think I would still be here in my second year without it. It's allowed me to relax how many hours I do week to week of paid work and just spend more time with my degree after I worked so hard at A-Levels to get here.

It's also really helped me just relax in terms of social scenes. It can be quite stressful moving to university and making friends in the first place is stressful - but also sustaining friendships does take money sometimes!

That is amazing. Thank you so much Fiona!

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