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Unconsidered Challenges of Work Experience – Guest Blog by Mimi Beard

Date: 30 Jul

My first struggle to complete work experience became very clear very quickly. Although I was incredibly excited to have been selected, dark thoughts rolled in. Was it pointless? Could I really do this? How could I even physically get there?

Currently, I can’t drive because of health issues not to mention the cost. So the only way I could get from Penzance (a few miles away from Lands End) to Plymouth would be via public transport.

Buses were out of the equation. It’d take 4hrs plus, on top of countless changes; I’d have to leave at 4am and obviously, there are no buses running at that time. So train it was.

At first, that seemed fine. The next issue was paying for the tickets. At the time I was living on £57 a week. This had to cover service charges, gas, electric meters, and food. I was struggling to stretch my budget to cover that let alone add on travel costs. With train tickets at around £25 per day, there was no way I could afford to go.

Of course, KPMG like many countless other firms say they have a plan in place to support people on low income. Travel costs can be refunded, but there’s one fundamental flaw with that ….cash flow!

Refunds take weeks to come through. This means that between the time you pay for a ticket, and when it’s refunded there’s the question of how can I afford to live? It’s all fine and well getting the money back down the line but it doesn’t allow me to pay my bills, food and other essentials in the meantime.

Luckily enough, my mentors (Wo King and his wife Kate) supported me through this. They were well aware of the “error” in the system and loaned me enough to cover transport costs to and from work experience.

I will never be able to express how thankful I am for that help, not just financially but also emotionally. And I’m happy to say it continues to this day.

Kate dry cleaned one of her suits (which fascinated me as I’d never owned something that needed to be dry cleaned), leant me some smart shoes and I started to at least look the part.

The weekend before work at KPMG was due to start, I began to panic and my mind filled with questions of again. What if I wasn’t welcome? What if I wasn’t as good as private school students? Would it count against me that I had no network around me?

As a matter of fact, all of these questions were answered on my first day.

So the time came to explore the world of accountancy. Wo picked me up at 5 am coffee in hand. Although I lived close to the train station he dropped there, giving me a pep talk all the way. I still remember him telling me to walk tall. He reminded me how hard I’d worked to get there, and although I might not fit in, I’d earned my spot at the table.

There was no way I would be able to catch up on a bit of sleep on the train journey, my adrenaline level was soaring. So instead I decided to study partly on accountancy, and partly of on my A levels.

I knew I’d be missing college for a few days and there was no way I was going to let myself fall behind. Distracted time passed and, before I knew it I was off the train and onto a bus heading to KPMG.

After another 20 minutes I finally arrived; one of the latest there. I thought it was because of train times, even though I had taken the earliest, but later I found out every other attendee had stayed in a local hotel; not really an option for me.

At first, the day was uneventful, we introduced ourselves then sat through three talks on the different areas within their firm; Audit, Tax, and Advisory. Although I didn’t learn that much as I’d already covered most of this in my extracurricular studies, I took down loads of notes and asked lots of questions. I wasn’t going to waste a single minute I had there.

In the afternoon all of the work experience students began to talk more about themselves and their aspirations. Although I know they weren’t aware, this made me incredibly uncomfortable; it showed how very different our backgrounds were.

It turned that at 18 and in my second year of college, I was the oldest person in the room. All of the other students came from private or grammar schools so I didn’t dare mention my school history. I was a world away from their life.

But as the conversation continued I realised I was the only one with a qualification in AAT and that really, I did deserve to be there. Never the less it made me think how much harder I had to work to get noticed. I would have to be overqualified and extremely vocal to be taken seriously, to compete against this crowd.

That night I went home and cried. I cried so hard I ran out tears. I suddenly realised how far from easy my life was. I felt so defeated I didn’t think I could keep pushing forward. I called Wo and Kate and said I didn’t want to go back for the next day. After a lot of persuading and support I calmed down before finally collapsing into bed hoping that for once, I’d have sweet dreams.

It turns out I didn’t but it was okay because that day I woke up more determined than ever to show people exactly how much I mattered. Wo picked me up as usual and I was on my way.

Day 2 and we all gathered in the same room again. Someone mentioned that they were currently working with a charity to help raise funds for the Grenfell tower disaster. Finally, somebody, I shared common ground with. You see the previous month the “supported housing” I was living in ran an open day where all proceeds went to the same cause. I felt proud of this. I had run the majority of the event, from organising, letters, collecting funds and donations, radio interviews and more.

The conversation expanded and I talked more about my experiences in supported housing. I explained that I had to leave home during my GCSEs and I had been moved to a group of flats for vulnerable young adults. I have never seen so many people turn in one go. Most were incredibly respectful, others curious and keen to ask questions.

I spoke a bit about my past and the struggle to even survive let alone get to KPMG. I also started to talk about the work I was doing for Wo and Kate in their SME. And just like that, the atmosphere changed and I was suddenly welcomed. I felt overwhelmed as it was still such a new type of situation.

Come the second afternoon we were split into groups and asked to produce an advert for a travel agency. My team was quick to crowd around the board, most of us scribbling away. As we went along I offered my ideas but they were shut down or taken off. I still don’t know quite why.

Towards the end of the day, each group had to present, with reasons why the ideas were chosen their approach and how it would financially help market the business. Each presentation wasn’t only delivered in front of the other students, but also to three KPMG staff who worked in recruitment.

It was an interesting experience, hearing so many different ideas stemming from the same subject. I learned a lot about presentation there, things that had never really crossed my mind like how important body language was. You could say the silliest thing but if you look confident you could get away with it. Throughout, I tried to hold my nerves down using a stress relief technique called differing toes in your shoes; the continuous movement should calm you and no one will ever know you’re doing it!

Finally the skills I had learned in business and economics A Levels paid off. During the Q&A’s that followed. I actually felt confident and answered clearly.

The day was coming to an end and I found myself talking with two of the boys that had come from London. They were actually very down to earth when they weren’t in a business environment and I realised that in that respect they were quite like me. After getting food from a shop nearby, they offered me a lift to the train station. So we shared a cab and when we got there they gave me their numbers and told me to stay in touch.

I called Wo as soon as they left and talked to him for most of the journey home. I was exhausted but happy. I had my foot in the door and I was making a dent in the wall that had built up around me.

KPMG informed us that we would be allowed to fast track the recruitment for apprenticeship as we had already completed some of the exams. Although I wasn’t sure KMPG was where I definitely wanted to be, I knew that accountancy was. But I needed to keep exploring.

As the train drew nearer to Penzance the doubts began to roll in again but I held my head high. It might sound crazy but I kept repeating to myself – you’ve done it, you can’t be ignored now – and that helped. There was nothing to be ashamed of and this would not be the end of my journey.

In fact, my AS exams were fast approaching but that is a story for another time.

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