From addiction to academia; why we need further education

Why we need further education

As far as interviews go, it’s not every day you come across compelling stories that leave you in a reflective state.

You can tell when you’re faced with raw honesty and Lee Hughes was an open book, allowing me to delve into his journey and understand why we need further education within society. It’s not the dead-end option people tend to perceive further education to be. In fact, it can be the making of people, like it was for Lee. This is his story.

Looking back, can you pin point why you didn’t have that drive for ambition?

Ambition was something that wasn’t even in my vocabulary when I was young and at school. To grow up in Barnsley means you have two key career choices: manual work or call-centre work. My interest in History and English was not going to get me a career in Barnsley so I switched off from school work and life at an early age. I never felt pushed at school; I enjoyed the work and it wasn’t particularly challenging but I never felt engaged with the need to do well.

Why did using drugs seem like the solution or right thing to do at that time?
I wasn’t alone in feeling bereft. In hindsight, there was a small group of close friends that were the same as me; clearly clever, yet not challenged or engaged. We knocked about with each other, discovering music and reading about history and politics. The drugs fitted alongside almost naturally. We’d smoke weed, listen to music and take harder drugs on the weekend. As the years passed by heroin became the drug of choice, not by design, just by chance.

I must say, even when I was in the grip of addiction, I always felt like I was never fully committed to that lifestyle. Whilst I was the classic stereotype of an addict – stealing, lying and even being homeless for a week or two, I knew that my life wouldn’t be like this forever. I knew it wasn’t typical behaviour to read obscure history books whilst smoking heroin! Funnily enough, a few of my friends who I did heroin with have gone on to lead decent lives and have great jobs but the majority are still addicts. I was lucky.
When was your breakthrough moment when you thought that ‘this has to stop’ and ‘I’m going to turn my life around?’
It was around the time my son was born. I didn’t have a cliché moment where I thought ‘I’ll get straight for my son’, if anything I got worse when he was born. I was tired and knew that I was burning out both physically and mentally. I’d tried to get sorted countless times but was never fully committed. The turning point came when my relationship broke down, my son was reaching an age where he was old enough to recognise my behaviour and I ended up back at home, living with my mum. I decided to cut my ties with everybody and decided to start again. I threw myself into work at a call-centre and thrived on the stability and normality that work provided, but as the years passed I still had that niggling feeling that I could do much better than this.

What went through your mind when you realised there was a second chance to achieve success through adult learning?
I was lucky that a manager at work picked up on my intelligence and passion for learning. You must bear in mind that nobody ever told me I was clever and I had zero confidence in myself. My manager, after countless meetings about my poor performance at work – I was reading History books instead of working – gave me an ultimatum: either enrol at college or she’d have to sack me if my performance didn’t improve. She took me onto the shop floor, put her arm around me and told me I’m better than this. That moment was one of the most powerful in my life.

I went to Barnsley College the next day and the lady there advised to go to Northern College. What went through my mind? Honestly, not a lot. I knew that it was a 9-month course and I naturally wanted to study History, Politics and English, but I had no inclination as to what it would mean for my development.

How was your experience studying your Access to HE Diploma?
From my first encounter with staff I knew that I was somewhere special. I was asked what interested me and started rabbiting on about Stalinism and Trotskyism (it was the first time anyone had taken a genuine interest in what I had to say) and the interviewer stopped me mid-flow. She just smiled and said, ‘You can stop Lee, you’re among like-minded people here, you’ve come home.’ That absolutely blew me away.

Over the 9-months all my anxieties and hang-ups that had built up through taking drugs and under-achieving were gradually replaced with feelings of confidence and a feeling that anything was possible. I was nurtured and allowed to blossom. The staff praised me when I wrote or spoke well and were constantly raising the bar, pushing me harder and harder. Each time I achieved something, through academic work, becoming President of the Student Union, giving speeches alongside MPs or representing the college at official events, they always said I could do better. They instilled in me the confidence in myself to constantly aim higher, that I was more than capable. My time at Northern irrevocably changed my life.
What have you gone on to do since your studies? What are your aspirations and goals in life now?
I’ve literally just finished my degree at Sheffield Hallam University. I studied Modern History and have done extremely well. My aspirations and goals? Well, I’m going to have a break from studying for a year, I’ve been at it for four years! My plan is to study for a Masters in a year or so and take it from there. I think I’ll end up working towards a PhD. This year I’m going continue learning a language – I started to learn Russian a couple of years ago but university work meant that had to be shelved. I’m also going to try to find some work in Barnsley or Sheffield that links into what I’m good at, which is researching and writing. Other than that, I’m going to take my foot off the accelerator for a while; I’ve had an extremely busy few years!

What are you most grateful for?
I’m grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me through adult education and through the award I won. If it wasn’t for the staff and college (and my old manager) noticing me and pushing me onwards I don’t think I would be anywhere close to where I am today. It feels as though I’ve been given a second chance and I can create my own momentum now, whereas before I seemed to be floundering.
What was your biggest lesson throughout your journey?
My biggest lesson? That you can achieve anything if you put your mind to the task. I now look at my past, the drugs etc. as something positive rather than wholly negative. I’ve lived and experienced things that have made me into who I am today. My son already has ambitions to emulate what I have done. I can quietly push him into achieving his potential, something which I never had growing up.

What advice would you give to people who are either in a difficult situation as well as those who are thinking about going back into studying?
There is always a way-out. You must never consign yourself to a way of life if you are unhappy. One thing I have learned is to be patient and ambitious. If you want something, chisel away at it and it will happen in the end. Adult education is so much more than academia; it allows people to flourish and believe in themselves again. Adult education should be cherished and celebrated. It provides so much more than qualifications. It instils confidence and drive in people. I am proof, that with my background, anything is possible if there are people around to nurture and push you onwards.

Safeera Sarjoo

Lee won the Festival of Learning ‘Outstanding Individual Learner’ 2015 Award.

Find out more from about Lee via his video story:

If you know someone like Lee that you feel is an inspiration and would be deserving of a 2019 Festival of Learning Award, nominations open on Tuesday 13 November.