A lone parent who had to leave school at 14 during a tumultuous period in the care system as a child is graduating from Heriot-Watt University today with a First-Class Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences with Cell and Molecular Biology.
Sarah Jayne Morris, 42, missed out on higher education after school and also faced challenges during her studies as a mature student, including the onset of deafness caused by long Covid and home schooling her daughter, Isobel, aged 10.
“Heriot-Watt were fantastic and helped and guided me through what was essentially one of the most difficult periods of my life,” Sarah Jayne said.
Heriot-Watt were very supportive and made sure I knew the door was always open to return.
It was her fascination with bacteria that attracted her to the Biological Sciences BSc specialising in Cell and Molecular Biology.
“I'm really interested in bacteria and microbiology,” Sarah Jayne said. “There’s a war on antibiotic resistance and this has happened because bacteria are so fantastic at evolving. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered accidentally in 1945 by Alexander Fleming. Even he was warning us 80 years ago in his Nobel Prize speech that bacteria would become resistant if we don't use antibiotics correctly.
“Now you can buy antibiotics over the counter in some countries. People are going to the doctor's to get antibiotics for viral conditions that they don't need them for. There’s poor use of antibiotics and poor education, both with the public and actually some health practitioners. And we've got to the stage now where people will start to die from antibacterial infections that we could previously treat.”
Sarah Jayne has already co-published academic papers with colleagues at Heriot-Watt’s School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, and would like to work in policy development role that also raises aspirations for care experienced people.
“I want to help support people with lived experience to have equal opportunities in education,” says Sarah Jayne, who is originally from Birmingham but now lives in Edinburgh. “Like many other care experienced individuals, I left school at 14. When you're worrying about where you're going to live from one day to the next, what you're learning just isn’t on your radar.”
Sarah Jayne moved 17 times over two years in her early teens, living in a variety of kinship care settings, foster homes, temporary foster homes and emergency foster homes. She was also expelled from four schools.
“I was being placed in all these different places and you just get so far behind at school,” Sarah Jayne explained. “You're treated differently because you’re behaving differently. You’re excluded rather than included – and it's just a kind of vicious cycle.”
While studying at Heriot-Watt, Sarah Jayne has also been working as a student ambassador for the University’s Widening Participation team. This is committed to helping students reach their full potential and welcomes people from all backgrounds. Sarah Jayne is also a lead strategic student ambassador for The Hub for Success, a collaboration between the City of Edinburgh Council and the universities and colleges in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas to support care-experienced learners get into and stay in education at any age or stage.
Sarah Jayne said: “This is such important work, because the numbers of care experienced higher and further education learners are starkly underrepresented. But when the right scaffolding is built to support us, we can thrive.”
When the Covid pandemic started, Sarah Jayne was committed to home schooling her daughter as well as keeping up with her own studies.
“I wanted to give my daughter a nourishing educational experience and not let her grades slip, as well as continuing with my degree work, and it just became a mountainous task,” Sarah Jayne said.
When she fell ill with complications linked to long Covid, including permanent tinnitus in one ear, Sarah Jayne took a temporary suspension of studies.
“It was a very difficult time, because I'd essentially lost one of my senses,” Sarah Jayne explained. “But Heriot-Watt were very supportive and made sure I knew the door was always open to return.”
Sarah Jayne’s graduation is the culmination of eight years of study in all, six of them at Heriot-Watt. This is because study suspensions added an extra two years to her four-year BSc. Sarah Jayne had also previously studied for two years to get into university, completing both a further education access course called SWAP-East, and then a Higher National Certificate.
“I started studying in 2015 when my daughter was just two, so it feels like a lifetime ago,” Sarah Jayne said. “Being able to relax after eight years of studying and always having one eye on a book is just great. It feels amazing to be graduating.”
Tracey Kerr, Widening Participation Manager in Heriot-Watt’s Widening Participation Team said: “We are so thrilled that Sarah Jayne is graduating today, and with a First-Class Honours, which is the highest honours degree you can achieve. She has worked incredibly hard and we are very proud of her, and of the fantastic work she has done for us as a widening participation student ambassador. We wish Sarah Jayne all the best in her future career.”