Frontline work and lived experience are more useful to policy than a degree

I worked instead of going to uni
When all my friends were going to university, I spent a year working. I felt pressure to go to university, but also felt needed at home. I saved the money I earned, unsure whether I’d spend it travelling or going to uni later on.

I’ve always been an activist
I’ve been volunteering since I was 15, when I joined the Terrence Higgins Trust’s youth leadership scheme. They’re a really empowering employer and gave our team of young people commissioner-style powers to allocate funding to youth projects on sexual health.

When I was a teenager my friends and I supported a daycare centre for families in my area who couldn’t afford childcare over the summer holidays.

Volunteering led me to my first paid job
I had this idea of doing police training so I could learn about human trafficking, which was the issue I really wanted to work on. But I quickly realised the police wouldn’t suit me!

Terrence Higgins Trust has a ‘no degree needed’ culture and a great organic system where young people who’ve been involved informally can stay with the charity, moving into more formal roles. So when I moved to London to finally start a degree in philosophy, they employed me as an LGBT Community Engagement Officer, essentially running outreach services for HIV testing and support. THT were supportive of me studying while I was working for them, but in no way needed me to get the degree – the qualities they need in their frontline staff are honesty, openness, friendliness and being non-judgemental, and I had those already.

Would I have got my first job in policy without my degree? I hope so
I started working part-time as Policy and Campaigns Officer for THT while I was also part-time Community Engagement Officer. Although I’d got my degree by that point, I think it was my other experience that they thought qualified me for a policy role – I’d done lots of campaigning and internships and of course knew the cause and the organisation’s values well by then. Unfortunately, there is a false divide between ‘service delivery’ jobs and ‘policy’ jobs when I think it’s important to have people who’ve done both.

Frontline experience is more useful in policy than a degree
I would never work in a policy area I didn’t have practical experience of. When my job at THT finished as a result of a restructure, I went to Greece on the spur of the moment, and ended up helping to support the refugee population there. That experience now feeds into my work for the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Consortium at The Children’s Society, where policy work enables me to focus my activism.

Find your cause
My advice to young people who want to work in a policy and campaigns role is to get involved in the issues you feel strongly about. If you look around your community, there will be plenty of projects and campaigns that need help – just ask how you can be useful. And that includes on issues you’ve got personal experience of: if something unjust is making you angry or frustrated, you can channel that into activism. After all, there’s a lot for young people to feel angry about, and good policy making needs their voices.