From prison cells to top student

University of Cumbria scholar Natalie Atkinson is the National Union of Students' Student of the Year 2014
University of Cumbria scholar Natalie Atkinson is the National Union of Students' Student of the Year 2014
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Natalie Atkinson has 50 convictions to her name, but now she is Student of the Year. She spoke to CATHERINE MUSGROVE about the transformation in her life.

Between the ages of 13 and 18, Natalie Atkinson lived in no fewer than 25 different addresses, with more than 50 convictions for battery and assault.

Having fallen into a life of crime after being taken into care, she would spend time under sentence in secure children’s units, and later, prison.

Living with rapists, murderers and drug dealers led Natalie to depression, addiction to a heroin substitute called Subutex and self-harm.

Not in her wildest dreams at that time did she imagine she would one day, at the age of 24, have a first class honours degree from the University of Cumbria’s Lancaster campus, be picking up the award for NUS Student of the Year, and have secured a place at the London School of Economics to study for an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy.

She said: “Looking back, if someone had said to me a few years ago that in 2014 you will be graduating with a first class honours degree, moving to London to commence a Master’s degree and looking forward to a successful career, I would have laughed; but this is my life.

“If you set your mind to it anything is achievable, but it is up to you to make the changes that need to be made. I have gone from being a prolific offender living a chaotic lifestyle to living a settled and happy life, so if I can do it then anyone can. All you need to do is take little steps to begin with and you will see things changing. Everyone will have a different path to desistance… you just need to find yours.”

Natalie emerged from prison with GCSEs in maths and English and the standard £46.50 prison discharge grant, and was sent on her way.

She decided to seek support to plan for her future and attended various college taster courses and completed an Access to Higher Education Diploma. Along the way she met University of Cumbria (UoC) lecturer Nigel Rourke, and decided to apply to the UoC course following his recommendation.

She said: “Returning to education was one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome. When I first started university I was so nervous that I would not fit in, as I thought everyone would know I am an ex-offender and that I would not be able to do the work.

“However I quickly became settled and got into the swing of Uni life. My confidence has grown and I now believe in myself that I can achieve and fulfil my potential.

“My achievements and successes at UoC are the reason I am going on to study at postgraduate level at LSE.

“Never would I have had the confidence to even apply for such a prestigious Uni if I had not been supported and encouraged at Cumbria.”

Having achieved a first class honours BSc Police, Investigation and Criminology Degree, Natalie has now secured a place at the London School of Economics to study for an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy and has been offered a job as a substance misuse worker. She hopes to progress to a PhD.

She added: “Hopefully one day I’ll be in a position to challenge and influence the policies and practices that exist relating to young people within the youth and criminal justice systems.”

Natalie is now keen to use her experience to inspire other young people in troubled circumstances, and earlier this year presented her own BBC3 programme Banged Up & Left To Fail?, exploring the impact being locked up has had on young adult offenders.

Ashley Tiffen, programme leader for the University of Cumbria’s BSc in Policing, Investigation and Criminology, was Natalie’s personal tutor for part of her time at UoC.

He said: “My first impression of Natalie was of a quiet individual who kept herself to herself.

“While I knew of her background it wasn’t something she wanted to share at that time, as she settled into her new environment. That said, it was clear from the outset that she was eager both to learn but also to challenge those around her.

“We have seen her develop in confidence from the quiet individual who arrived to a young woman who is not ashamed of her past. She accepts it, and now she has moved on.

“Natalie did have some problems at the end of year one which set her back confidence-wise, but together we worked through the issues. Strangely this setback was a most obvious turning point. Instead of always looking backwards, she started to look forward.

“As soon as Natalie was contacted by the BBC she came to me for advice and we worked together on making many of the arrangements.

“One thing we agreed on was this was her story, her experiences, her views. She had a powerful story to tell and it had to be her way.

“Did I agree with her views? For the most part, yes. We do abandon offenders when we need to support them either in the community or when they return to the community.

“Offenders have many and complex issues they need to deal with and many lead chaotic lives - as Natalie did before she found the door out of offending - and society needs to help them deal with these issues if we are ever going to turn them from their offending behaviour.

“It’s brilliant that Natalie has been accepted to study at LSE. I can see Natalie posing really awkward questions to those who shape policy.”