On Friday 26 November, former tractor driver turned Stirling student Steven Prescott will step up onto the stage at the Albert Halls to be capped by the University’s Chancellor, Dr James Naughtie and to receive his degree – an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture.
He will be in good company, surrounded by nearly 600 graduands who have reached the end of a hard journey. But for Steven, the road has been particularly long and rocky and there have been some unplanned stops en route.
Twenty-seven year old Steven hails from Burscough in West Lancashire – a part of the world noted for manufacturing and agriculture, but with no obvious link with the sea or fish. So how did his interest in the marine environment come about?
“We’ve got the Southern Pennines on our doorstep and I used to go hill walking there with my granddad,” he explains. “So from when I was very young, I’ve always enjoyed being around nature. When I was about eleven, we went to visit relatives in South Africa and that’s where I met my cousin, who had just got her degree in Zoology. I was fascinated by the stuff she told me about animals. So that was it – a Zoologist’s future for me.
“I’d never even heard of Marine Biology back then, but one Sunday afternoon I was moping around the house, so Mum took me off to a church fete. I entered this competition where I had to pick the shortest straw out of a pile of sand. I was pretty successful at that and won two goldfish. I carried them home and put them in a bowl. Then I bought some more fish to join them. Then they all died.
“Inevitable, really. It was the height of summer and the water wasn’t being oxygenated; the bowl had had no filter, and there were too many fish in it. All of which I learned when I went back to ask the fish shop owner what had gone wrong. That conversation was the start of my obsession with fish.
“From then on, every minute I had and every penny I saved was spent on fish. My granddad and I converted the garden shed into and aquarium area. I got fish tanks for Christmas. I bought fish a couple of times a week. And I went on like that until I was sixteen or so – buying fish, breeding them, selling them on to pet shops. “
From school, Steven went on to do his Zoology degree at Leeds University. Only to discover on graduating that employment locally was hard to come by. “I ended up driving a tractor for a local farmer and stuck at it for about a year – saving all the time because I already had an idea about doing more study.”
Tractor driving was followed by a sales assistant’s job in Ormskirk. By which time, saving every penny had become crucial, as Steven had applied to do an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture at Stirling.
“By then, I’d read a few academic books on the subject, checked out which Universities taught it – and found out that Stirling was rated the best place in the world to do a Master’s degree in Aquaculture. I also knew I’d need around £12,000 to fund the course and my living expenses. So I started working on night shift in a cardboard box factory.”
The job soon became a nightmare, with abysmal working conditions and poor management culture. “It was, without a doubt the most appalling, stressful, depressing job I’ve ever had to do. But there was nothing else around and I needed to add to my savings,” Steven recalls.
The good news was that his university application was accepted and Steven moved to Stirling last autumn to begin his study. “I admit I was nervous at first. But from the minute I got here, I loved it. The lecturers were great and the course was brilliant. Fantastic. Really well put together and lived up to everything the literature had promised.”
Although he has enjoyed every moment of his degree course, the effort and determination needed to get to University was huge for Steven. So how will he feel, when he steps up to receive his degree certificate? He grinned hugely at the question.
“Believe it or not, getting an MSc already feels irrelevant, because I’ve now been accepted to do a PhD here at Stirling. I knew there would be a lot of competition for places and funding. So I’ve been permanently on edge, waiting to hear if I’d been accepted. I wanted a place so badly, I can’t put the feeling in words.”
It helped that Steven was offered one of only fifty places offered to Stirling students on the University’s ‘Broadening Your Horizons’ initiative, which carefully targeted investment in 50 research studentships , as well as five research apprenticeships. The posts are designed to provide advanced postgraduate training in biological and environmental sciences, with the successful applicants having access to unrivalled academic and vocational opportunities.
“On the day I heard I’d been accepted, I just felt a bit dazed and weird,” Steven recalls. “I went for a walk up Dumyat and sat on the summit all afternoon and evening, until the sun set. By which time, the news had finally sunk in and I was ecstatic.
“To go from being a tractor driver and cardboard factory worker, reading the odd academic paper and journal when I could get my hands on them, to feeling confident in myself and fully equipped to do a PhD... well, it’s been so worth the money and effort. Because I feel 1,000 times better than I did just 18 months ago. I’d been so unhappy back then, watching all my friends who seemed to be doing so much better in life than I was.
“In the meantime, I’m beginning to develop an interest in seaweed and am seriously considering setting up an aquarium to grow seaweed samples for study. Only I don’t know if my landlord will allow that... do you think seaweed growing could be classed as keeping a pet?”
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