"It's tough as a young person when you don't have anyone to look up to," says Miriam Ahmad, one of our Head Start students in the UK. "I hope that one day I can be a role model for people in my situation." Miriam's family is originally from Iraq, but she grew up in West London, where she still lives. "It's a rough neighborhood – poverty, dropouts, gangs, even stabbings – but we try to make the best of life."
At a young age, Miriam knew she wanted a career in law: she remembers her teacher telling her she'd make a good lawyer, and because her mother doesn't speak English, she would go to appointments and translate for her.
"I was only a child, but the head of the household. When our house was robbed three times, I had to speak to the police and council representatives to explain that this was a real problem, and manage our move to a new council flat." Miriam and her sister are primary carers for their mother, who is disabled, so she's had to balance jobs with a fast-food outlet and as a waitress with her education and caring responsibilities.
"I want go back to my school and tell everyone to aim high and to not give up."
But despite the challenges Miriam has faced, she's never thought about giving up her education for a full-time job that would surely make life easier in the short term. "That's not how my mum brought me up. She always told me to study hard, and success will come later, in its own time."
Through the Sutton Trust, Miriam discovered our Head Start program, and has since taken part in a variety of activities. "I've spent a week in the firm's London office, where we had workshops on skills like networking, negotiating, interview techniques and problem-solving. And we attended a course run by the Social Mobility Business Partnership, visiting companies such as ITV, Amazon and BT."
Miriam hopes to practice dispute resolution, so it's just as well her upcoming work placement with the firm is in the London litigation team. She initially wanted to be a barrister, but changed her mind on learning – during work experience with us – that, in the UK, solicitors can attain higher rights of audience.
At the time of writing, Miriam is less than two weeks away from her first A-level exam. She has conditional places at several London universities, as she will need to live at home to continue caring for her mother.
And the future? "I want to give something back to my community, to help young people like me. To go back to my school, give everyone my email address and tell them to aim high and to not give up."
"We will all face difficult times in our lives. We all suffer," says Huihui Chen, a Head Start student in China. "But we need to believe that we will be stronger after those experiences. That we will be better people."
Huihui grew up and lives in Shaoguan with her mother – a bank clerk – and brother. Her father unexpectedly passed away a year ago. "He had worked on a project to alleviate poverty, by helping people in mountainous regions. Losing him was painful, but he always wanted me to be an excellent person, and I want to follow him by fighting for those who face injustice in our country. Anyone who has the power to help others also has a responsibility to do so."
Acting as a class monitor from primary to high school helped to develop Huihui's leadership skills and confidence, and she placed sixth and fourth in the whole of Shaoguan for her middle and high school entrance exams. "I also took up long-distance running – my father believed I need to be strong physically as well as mentally."
"I want to use law as a tool to help people less able to help themselves."
Huihui is in her second year at the China University of Political Science and Law, but managing family expectations is a challenge. "Rather than my pursuing a degree, my mum wanted me to have a stable job as a civil servant, so that I could support the family. I want to make her happy, but I also want to reach my full potential. If I do that, I think she'll be proud of me."
Two months into the Head Start program, Huihui says she feels more confident about her future. "My mentor has already given me some great advice. She's encouraging me to do what I want to do, not what others want. It's fantastic that the firm has a strong sense of social responsibility and is trying to give something back to our community."
Although she is studying several legal disciplines, Huihui is most interested in constitutional and administrative law. "Many of the students here want to pursue civil law – perhaps because of the financial rewards, which is fine! But I'm more interested in using law as a tool to help people less able to help themselves."
Huihui's long-term ambition is to become a judge and enact change from within the system. "No law is perfect – there are always issues. But we have to take action where we can. That's what my dad did, and it's what I'll do."