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Student profile: Declan McLoughlin

Meet Declan McLoughlin, final-year Law student who was named 'Student of the Year' at this year’s NEON Awards for his work enhancing social mobility in the East Midlands through his charity Channels. He also shares how he came from a disadvantaged background himself and why it's important for him to give back. 

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Tell us a little bit about yourself  

I grew up in east Lincolnshire from a disadvantaged background. I’m incredibly lucky to come to university on several funding opportunities; I’ve got a bursary from the School of Law and funding from a law firm, Linklaters.  I’ve not forgotten that some students still face the same barriers I did, and I’m keen to help break them down.  

I’m a final-year Law student, and will start a training contract with Linklaters in 2022. It’s important for me to give back; I’m working part-time supporting the Linklaters pro bono team, and I volunteer at the School of Law’s Legal Advice Centre. I’m also the Founder of Channels, a charity dedicated to bettering social mobility in the East Midlands by improving access to higher education or professions.   

Congratulations on being named Student of the Year at this year’s NEON Awards. Can you tell us more about it?  

I was really honoured to be nominated by Will McAdam from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences who has been mentoring me through the process of setting up Channels and bringing that to fruition. Frances Ridout, Director of the Legal Advice Centre, also supported my nomination because I did quite a lot of volunteering and extra-curricular work there over the past year. So much work has gone into Channels to make it a reality, so it was brilliant to be recognised for that, especially from widening participation professionals.  

I will get to speak at the NEON summit next year. I’m hoping this will also be the start of Channels working with the NEON organisation.   

You founded Channels - can you tell us more about the work that you do there?

Channels is all about social mobility; giving pupils the same opportunities no matter where they’re from, no matter what schools they go to. In the day-to-day sense, what that means is that we help to get people into university and get into competitive professions because we believe they are the two best ways to enhance your social standing and give yourself the best start in life. At the moment we are focused on pupils in the East Midlands, where I’m from.   

A large part of this is raising awareness about what’s possible. For example, when I told my sister I was considering being a barrister, she asked me why I’m wasting three years of my life getting a degree to go and make coffee. If you don’t know about a profession, how can you be expected to aspire to it.   

We’re partnership driven, engaging with employers and universities, and getting them out into the schools. Channels has responded to the pandemic by putting lots of resources online. It is great to see schools carving out the time for students to find out more about the opportunities available to them; it means that no one is disadvantaged or worried about coming forward about it.   

Channels is very much a Queen Mary project. Queen Mary has provided access to some key data that has allowed us to objectively target schools to work with, saving the project in the region of £10,000. Four out of five of our trustees are Queen Mary students. And the support and guidance from Will McAdam has been amazing.  

What is widening participation? Why do you think East Midlands seems to get so little support?  

Widening participation is all about widening the pool of pupils that apply to and attend university, and giving everyone the same opportunities to access higher education.   

In the East Midlands it’s a perfect storm. Terrible transport links, fewer higher education institutions available, and lack of graduate employers in the area are all challenges. With only one Russell Group institution in East Midlands, covering a geographical area of almost 16,000km2, it is harder to get anyone to engage with schools in the area. With no engagement, there’s no inspiration to students and nothing to aspire to.   

What projects is Channels focused on at the moment? Can Queen Mary students get involved?  

Right now we’re getting ourselves set up for the next year. Channels was only registered as a charity on 22 October, and so while we’ve been going informally as an unregistered charity until then, we had a lot of restrictions on what we could do. Over the coming months, we’ll be getting ourselves organised so that we can apply for funding so that we can really broaden our outreach even further.   

I’d say to any student who is interested in Channels to come and have a chat and see whether you might want to volunteer with us. We’re volunteer-led so very keen to see students take on different roles in the organisation – we’re especially keen to see those who come from a widening participation background themselves. If you can’t donate your time, we’d welcome a donation either directly or by signing up to Amazon Smile  

You’ve always work in the School of Law’s Legal Advice Centre (LAC) – what do you do there?  

In my first year I was a note-taker, sitting in on client appointment taking notes for the student advisor. Then in my second year I moved up to be an actual student advisor, so that involved taking clients through their issue in an interview, finding out what the key points of their problem were, then going away and drafting advice that solves their problem or shows them how they can solve their problem themselves. Now I’m a Tribunal Advocate, so what that means is that I take cases for social welfare benefits, usually universal credit or PIP (personal independence payments), and I prepare and draft the submissions on them, and represent the client at tribunal. The LAC has been brilliant for all of my development.   

Favourite spot on campus?  

Ground Café is great. I can’t work in silent conditions; there needs to be some background noise, so the energy in Ground is always fantastic. I’m also a coffee addict. My standard order is a five-shot Americano.   

Who’s your role model?  

The defining moment for me when I started Channels and everything that’s followed since was when I started the scholarship at Linklaters. On the very first day, I went in with all the other scholars for our first day of work experience, and Andre Flemmings the Global & Diversity Recruitment Manager, came into the room and spoke to us. What he said has stuck with my ever since. He said: “You’ve made it now, you’re through the door, you’ve done it, congratulations. Now you’ve got a responsibility and it’s all about making sure that you’re not pulling the ladder up behind you”. He’s one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met. If you have a look at the Channels logo, you’ll see how I’ve tried to incorporate that concept of ladders and moving up from cold spots to hot spots into the core values of what we do there.