Christopher Jackson updates readers about progress on Finito’s work with a particular student from the Landau Forte Academy
At Finito, we are sometimes asked why it is that one-to-one mentoring works: one possible answer is that people are complex.
During our lives – and especially our early lives – experience can often feel bewildering. Things come at us fast, and contradictory impressions are arrived at. Soon the world can seem insoluble.
There is no better way of tackling all this than the concerned help of a mentor. At Finito we take it a step further and make sure that our candidates have the benefit of numerous mentors: the reality is that it takes time and a degree of luck to establish the right kind of mentor-mentee relationship. This means that students often need to try several mentors before discovering the right one.
At Finito, not all we do is aimed at those punch-the-air moments: the place secured at a top university, the new job, the promotion. These are rewarding, of course, but they’re very far from the whole story.
More typically, mentoring is full of small wins – it can open up onto a world of quiet reward, and subtle attainments. Sometimes when you look back at the road travelled, you can be surprised by how far you came by small steps. But it usually happens that in these more mundane things might be contained the seeds of some important revelation.
All these factors are present in the fascinating story of Joseph McDonald, a Bursary candidate of whom we at Finito World are proud.
McDonald is one of our mentees on the outstandingly successful Bursary Scheme, which we continue to conduct in partnership with the Landau Forte Academy. Finito mentor Andy Inman, who was instrumental in setting up this arm of the bursary, remembers his first impressions of Joseph when he was introduced to us.
“Joseph is, by his own admission, not particularly social. He doesn’t like groups and crowds, and has very little home support to speak of. The important thing to realise when you have a candidate like that, is that small tasks become big things.”
When Joseph joined our programme, he was about to leave to take a computer science degree at Lancaster University; he was already in a state of anxiety about what life would be like for him. “I was nervous about making friends and finding the right friendship group when I first came to university,” he tells us. “This is something that I struggled with in the past at school. It was definitely my number one priority upon arrival.”
Inman decided that Joseph required a caring, nurturing mentor and he couldn’t have made a better selection in this than Coco Stevenson. “I knew that Coco would look after him,” Inman recalls. “What was required might sound insignificant but they were not to Joseph: we’re talking about things like packing lists, and so forth – all the pre-university tasks which you have to do before the leap to university. Some of these things, of course, a parent should do – but for whatever reason Joseph doesn’t have that.”
Inman’s remarks are a reminder that as we go on in life, we typically come to know the world and forget what it was like not to be sure about things we later come to regard as obvious. Inman recalls: “It was mentoring at its most granular, in a way – all about the detail. How would Joseph get to university? How would he make applications for student loans? Where would he shop for a duvet and for cutlery?”
But what Joseph most feared was Fresher’s week. “Most people would love that, but for Joseph it’s really the antithesis of what he enjoys – so he had to be talked through that.”
Stevenson stepped up and in time developed a profound relationship with Joseph. She tells us she was mindful of the magnitude of Joseph’s achievement in getting to university at all: “Joseph is the first in his family to go to university and we should remember that Lancaster University has one of the best Computer Science courses in the UK,” she tells us.
But Stevenson also never lost sight of the difficulty for Joseph: “Going to university is a major transition in a young person’s life and is all the more difficult coming out of a pandemic – especially when you are a neuro-diverse person, as the world is not always set up for people who are not neurotypical,” she continues.
Stevenson gives us her first impressions of Joseph: “My mentee was not especially confident in the months leading up to moving to university and there were a number of worries and concerns.”
Difficulties of this kind must be tackled head-on, and together, Coco and Joseph began to explore the issues: “Working regularly together, we were able to ‘workshop’ issues, come up with strategies and plan for eventualities,” she recalls. “Planning and strategizing helped enormously in accomplishing tasks and not being derailed by unforeseen things.”
Stevenson used her experience of university life to begin to create a plan for Joseph. Joseph now recalls this fondly: “We discussed the kind of activities I could get up to, including the structure of academic events and the social events I could engage with outside of my studies. Coco encouraged me to convert my ideas of involvement into a more solid plan that helped me find my grounding as I began living away from home for the first time.”
Soon the pair of them had alighted on a strategy: “Coco explained that societies are fundamental to finding people with similar interests and a great place to make friends. She advised me on how many societies to attend, and how to approach the problem of deciding which societies I would continue attending. This was how I became part of the Sober Society, and I am so grateful to Coco for this.”
Gradually, Joseph began to feel confident, oriented in his new location, and in time able to feel at home. Stevenson looks back with satisfaction at the way in which Joseph’s sense of self developed in those early months at Lancaster University: “Each small step led to successes which in turn led to increased confidence and satisfaction. My mentee went from unsure and nervous to confident, assured and assuming various leadership roles, as well as achieving academic and social success.”
One of the core principles of Finito’s mentoring is that we want to be there for the long haul for our candidates. Coco and Joseph remained in touch as Joseph settled in, and Joseph still talks today of how the checklists and preparation that they made together helped him focus on his lecture content.
But then, a chance came up, and Joseph joined the Sober Society. Joseph remembers: “The Sober Society isn’t a recovery program and does not require you to never drink alcohol but provides a safe space for non-drinkers to have fun and an alternative for those taking a break from alcohol. I was enjoying participating in the events the Society had put on such as game and film nights.”
By regular attendance, Joseph soon discovered another opportunity: “It was announced at one of the events that the Society would soon be holding its annual hustings for the executive positions in the society,” he recalls. “As a new society formed only in that October of 2021, there were only two full time members of the executive, so they were looking for more to fulfil other roles. It was suggested by a friend of mine that I should apply for treasurer. I was uncertain of this since I was concerned it would create more work than I would be able to handle at this early stage of my university life.”
By this point the mentor-mentee relationship was far advanced. “Upon a call to Coco, I was reminded of the advantages of holding such a position. Such positions are seen positively by future employers as it shows leadership, commitment, and initiative. As one of the two candidates up for the position, I won the vote.”
Joseph’s tenure as Treasurer of the Sober Society was a huge success. He presided over a period of expansion: “By the end of the first term, we had over 150 members. This meant we were already one of the larger societies on campus. Issues surrounding alcohol are close to our hearts within the executive, so we were ecstatic at our success.”
And this success in turn began to be noticed: “After the end of the 2021-2022 academic year, our president was contacted via our Instagram account by student blog Student Beans. They were interested in the values of our society and studying Sober Societies across the country. This was representative of our success.”
Joseph began to create plans for the future of the Sober Society and for his own future, even planning a collaboration with other sober societies at Manchester Metropolitan University with trips scheduled to destinations such as Edinburgh. In addition to this he also got a girlfriend.
But this is where the story shifts: unfortunately towards the end of his first year Joseph got into an incident at the university, an altercation in which a door handle was accidentally snapped, when Joseph reacted to something a fellow student had said about his girlfriend. Joseph wasn’t at fault – indeed had shown admirable judgement – but the situation sadly rattled him and he decided not to intercalcate.
It was at this point that Finito deepened its involvement still further, as Coco voiced concerns with the Finito management about Joseph’s mental health. Mental health has been a core aspect of Finito World and we sought immediately to have him assessed by Paul Flynn, the brilliant CEO of leading mental health organisation AddCounsel.
Flynn explains: “When I spoke with Joseph he was on antidepressants, and my sense was that he had better support from Lancaster University than people usually get in these situations.”
Flynn then relayed his advice to us: “One of the challenges Joseph has is around resiliency: whether that links back to the way he’s wired up or not, it’s something that needs to be looked at. If it isn’t taken care of, then it will resurface. A very good CBT-based therapist should be able to support but so could a coach with expert knowledge of resilience skills.”
Before setting this up, we asked about Joseph’s desire. “When you get a coach you’ve got to be sure there’s that level of desire, and a wish to sort out a situation. I think that’s there or he wouldn’t have gone on the phone with me. But his plan is to go back home, and there’s no real work plan. He needs structure.”
Enter Finito mentor Talan Skeels-Piggins, who is ideally-placed to help students in this kind of situation. Skeels-Piggins’ story is unique and makes him an ideal fit for Joseph. Having been a PE teacher Skeels-Piggins suffered a terrible setback when he lost the use of his legs in a car accident. This, however, was the prelude to an astonishing display of fortitude, and he has gone on to be a Paralympian Olympic gold medalist in both motorcycling and skiing. He recently published a book The Little Person Inside which describes his extraordinary life.
Skeels-Piggins has been able to find meaning in a situation which would have defeated many others, and he seemed an ideal mentor for someone like Joseph struggling with mental health issues.
This means that Joseph has now embarked on a second mentor-mentee relationship, following on from his continuing association with Coco. Talan has begun to deepen his understanding of what Joseph actually wants, and been able to uncover too that some of the origins of his difficulties came during the pandemic when he spent less time in school than he would have liked.
In terms of the future Skeels-Piggins’ sense of Joseph’s future has crystallised during their sessions: “He needs to realise that he is enough by being Joseph, and not having to prove himself to be loved. This leads him onto the issue of not knowing what he needs to do for his future as he is only doing the current course because he felt pressure to go to Uni in order to please parents.”
After a later session, this began to deepen: “Joseph is not interested in the corporate world but wants to do something; tangible, real, that you can see, be proud of, helps others and makes a difference in the world. He admits he is not interested in computers and would not want to get a job related to computers once out of Uni. When we were talking about litter-picking, pond cleaning projects and other ecology-based activities he had done in the past he began to show interest and smiled whilst reflecting about the events.”
Joseph therefore has a momentous decision ahead of him: whether to return to university or whether to choose another path altogether and look for a future related to the environment or sustainability.
When such things are at stake, it’s our experience at Finito that people are will struggle to make a choice when they don’t have enough information at their fingertips. At such crucial moments, it can never be a bad thing – and will almost always be a good thing – to look for more information about what might work best.
Joseph’s stated interest in the environment and climate change caused us to think about people in our network who might be of use to Joseph and we approached the former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett to ask if she would be prepared to take a call with Joseph to take him through the options. She very generously assented and though the call will take place after this magazine has gone to press it is a measure of how far Joseph has come that the boy who was worried about Fresher’s week is soon to talk to the former leader of a major political party. Joseph should be proud of that.
Joseph’s story is evolving all the time, but the support so far provided him would have been impossible without the commitment of two Bursary donors in particular, whose generosity has been matched to Joseph’s needs.
In the first place, we would like to thank, Simon Blagden, CBE, Chair of Building Digital UK and former Chair of Fujitsu UK. Blagden says: “I served the Government’s advisory panel reviewing the future of technical education. During the two year process we met with hundreds of young people all over the country. I am delighted to support the work of Finito. The valuable work which you do strongly resonates with both students and their parents.”
Secondly we would like thank Dinesh Dhamija, who says: “I have been helping entrepreneurs through coaching and mentoring over the past 17 years. Finito’s focus on young people is admirable and I am proud to join their group in support. My own expertise is in the fast growing online Business to Consumer sector, and the green energy solar and Hydrogen fields.” We hope to use this expertise in future when it comes to Joseph’s story.
Joseph has already come a long way. The way ahead isn’t clear, but is becoming clearer all the time. What’s certain is that we stand shoulder to shoulder with him as a business, and as a bursary, and are committed to his success.