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Widening participation

Posted on May 16

5 min read

College Events & News

Gaia Lambert is the Schools Liaison and Access Officer at St John’s College. Read on to find out more about her work and how St John’s is breaking down barriers to higher education.

Hello Gaia! Tell us about coming to St John’s and your work in outreach to date.

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Gaia Lambert

I have been working at St John’s for the past six months in this role. I come from a state school background, and my first proper engagement with Cambridge was aged 15 as a prospective student when I started attending regional events aimed at encouraging people to apply. It’s such a rewarding experience to have come through that system and, ten years later, be the person stood there representing Cambridge myself.

I’ve been involved in outreach for six years — through my time as a student at Selwyn College and then later in the central Cambridge Admissions Office — and it is fantastic to now take the lead on outreach events here. St John’s is such a great college to work for, particularly with the supportive environment and the resources we have to create excellent provisions for outreach work. Above all, it really is a completely new world for many of the students who come to visit.

How do you foster relationships with schools in practical terms?

Research shows that the sooner you expose children to the idea of higher education, the more likely they are to attend university. However, as I’m sure everyone knows, teachers at the moment are overstretched, and it can be difficult for them even to support Year 13s through their UCAS applications, let alone focus on encouraging students from a younger age to start thinking about these choices. That’s where I come in. My work — widening participation — is focused on three main strands: breaking down barriers to higher education; raising aspirations of students to encourage them to apply to selective universities; and academic-related work to ensure prospective applicants meet the requirements.

As part of my role, I work predominantly with students from our three link areas: Greater Manchester, Shropshire and Lambeth. I recently visited schools around our North West areas for two weeks, mostly focusing on those first two strands; breaking barriers and raising aspirations. Across the two weeks, I presented to 750 Year 10–Year 12 students both on broader topics of higher education and on the specifics of the University of Cambridge interview process. I had a great reception from all of the teachers and students, and a lot of them were really engaged in asking questions.

What question do you hear most often from prospective students?

The most common question I get is, without a doubt, whether Cambridge is more expensive to come to than other universities. The short answer is ‘Absolutely not!’ Tuition fees, while expensive, are the same for most top universities, and the student loan covers that along with some basic support for maintenance. In fact, Cambridge can work out cheaper than other universities due to the limited time students pay rent. Perhaps most importantly, Cambridge — and St John’s in particular — provides such excellent financial support for anyone from a low-income background (see the Studentships scheme).

What misconceptions do you face when talking to people about studying at Cambridge?

I get lots questions about the practicalities of university. For many people, especially if no one in their family has been to university, all they know is the media portrayal of the experience. There are many misconceptions that have been picked up from American films, and I get asked ‘How many people do you share a dorm with?’ and ‘How do you choose a major and a minor?’. It is important to remember that the baseline knowledge can be very low: demystifying the process of university in general is at the core of all the work we do.

There are so many stereotypes of Cambridge and St John’s and it can often feel like a losing battle. This really feeds in to the other questions I tend to get: ‘Is Cambridge like the stereotypes?’, ‘Is everyone posh?’ and ‘Will I fit in?’.

Johnians are some of the College’s greatest ambassadors. What one thing would you wish for them to convey to any prospective student they talk to?

I’m sure anyone who has attended Cambridge knows this, but Cambridge is really nothing like the stereotypes, and one of the most fantastic things is how different everyone is. The single most important message to get across to anyone considering applying here is that there is no typical Cambridge student! St John’s has seen a lot of diversification over the past few years, with our 2020 intake set to be our largest state school percentage so far. We want the brightest students, regardless of background, and we are proud to support students throughout the process.

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Student Ambassadors on a recent Zoom call with Gaia

What’s new in the outreach programme this year?

The Admissions team is excited to be moving forward with some new projects in 2020: we are partnering with external organisations to provide mentoring to a number of prospective applicants in our link areas, and we are working with educational charities to hold events for different target groups including Black and Minority Ethnicities and Care Leavers. Following the success of Adjustment last year, the College’s Annual Fund has provided funding for extra support for Adjustment offer holders (those who were not made an offer for Cambridge initially but who received results exceeding the typical offer and who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds). This is in addition to a revamped programme of engagement for offer holders, designed to ease the transition from school to university and to continue to support our students in whatever ways we can.

Finally, we have taken the opportunity to design some exciting online projects in place of face-to-face provisions. We have teamed up with Trinity Hall to provide a three-part programme for students from our Link Areas, taking them from an Introduction to University and Cambridge all the way through the application process and how to engage academically with their subjects. At the current time we have over 650 students signed up for the project! We are also looking forward to launching online Admissions Clinics for prospective applicants in the coming months. Our social media engagement has also seen an increase recently, as we launch our Facebook page and Offer Holders Group, and we’re working with other colleges to promote academic resources to prospective applicants in the #exploreyoursubject project on Twitter. Finally, we’ll be holding our first Virtual College Open Days in July, where we’re very excited to be working with a range of members of the college community to give prospective applicants a taste of the fantastic environment and opportunities that St John’s can offer.

Full details of upcoming online events for prospective students, as well as contact details for the Admissions Team, are available at

You can also follow them on Twitter @SJC_Admissions

The St John’s College Annual Fund was able to provide financial support for the new Adjustment Open Day through generous donations from the Johnian community. You can read more about the Annual Fund, and how to support future projects, on the College website.