One of the most valuable aspects of FACE has always been its commitment to community and collaboration. Therefore, I am deeply saddened to share the news that Emily Hughes, a much-loved member of our community, passed away at the end of April at the age of thirty-five following a long battle with cancer.
Like so many of us, Emily began her career in access and participation as an enthusiastic and highly energised outreach practitioner. Emily joined Kingston in her early twenties, with high ideals and an inherent belief that anyone with the potential to benefit from higher education should be able to do so, regardless of their background or circumstances. Through her outreach work, Emily developed a particular interest in the barriers faced by care-experienced young people. In 2006, Kingston was an early recipient of the Buttle UK quality mark for its commitment to supporting care leavers in higher education. Emily was instrumental in building on this work to create the comprehensive and impactful KU Cares programme which provides tailored support for care-experienced students, young adult carers, estranged students, and forced migrants. Often cited as exemplary practice, KU Cares has helped transform the lives of hundreds of young people from highly marginalised groups through supporting them to achieve their academic and career ambitions.
It is Emily’s powerful advocacy for the interests of KU Cares students that has made the programme such a success. No matter what she achieved, Emily always wanted to do more: sanctuary scholarships; a more generous bursary; bespoke training for personal tutors; a graduation package; paid work placements; mentoring; careers advice; enhanced mental health support, and two full-time designated members of staff to provide advice and support. So much work in our field is driven by the dedication of committed individuals and this was certainly the case with KU Cares. It was very difficult to say no to Emily (as her line manager for many years, I should know!) Her tenacity and skills of persuasion were really quite extraordinary.
I had the joy of working with Emily for more than twelve years; we developed the kind of friendship you only really find at work – sharing jokes, laughter and key events in our private lives while working together to achieve shared goals. Over the years I saw Emily mature and thrive in her personal life. She married her long term partner and they were delighted to be expecting their first child. It was during her pregnancy that Emily’s happiness was mired by a diagnosis of breast cancer. She underwent immediate treatment which continued after the birth of her much-adored son, Zachary. She had a short period of remission but devastatingly, the cancer returned. Facing her illness with characteristic strength and positivity, Emily continued to shine at work. She remained committed to her job for as long as she could, contributing to this 2018 HEPI report, presenting at conferences and meeting with government ministers to share her expertise and advice.
Emily had nothing but praise and respect for the NHS staff who treated her, posting support from her hospital bed (she was clapping our carers for years). Like so many cancer patients, Emily had to cope with the impact of Covid-19 on her treatment. It is particularly cruel that, in the last few weeks of her life, she was denied the chance to spend time with her friends or go on the planned outings with her son that meant so much to her. When I spoke to Emily shortly after the lockdown, she could barely speak but one of the first things she asked me was how the university was looking after the KU Cares students.
Not long before Emily was forced to stop working due to the impact of her treatment, we attended the 2019 FACE annual conference at Sheffield Hallam University. Emily had a fantastic time, chatting with national and international delegates, and taking copious notes during the workshops and presentations. She helped out with the raffle and won a stainless steel cheese knife (she was particularly delighted about this!) After dancing to the live band at the gala dinner, Emily convinced a bunch of us to go on to a local karaoke bar where she sang her heart out to the song ‘Mmmbop’ by Hanson (a classic apparently, and one of her favourites!) This is how I will remember her, full of light and laughter.
Perhaps the most fitting tributes to Emily are in the messages received from some of her former students:
Emily was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever known. She made a huge difference in my life. She always believed in me, and did everything in her power to help me achieve the best in life. It saddens me to know that I will never be able to tell Emily how appreciative I am for all the help and support she gave me. She was magical. She helped me to overcome so many challenges in my life, even when I thought there was no way out. I am a pharmacist today, and achieved so much because of Emily.Saudah, KU Cares Alumni
I’m heart broken, lost for words. Emily has done so much for me and I wouldn’t be where I am today in my personal life and professional career without her support. She believed in me more than I ever believed in myself and this gave me the confidence to succeed. She always went beyond her job description to give me the best possible chance of a good life in this country and I cannot even put my gratitude into words.Gracia, KU Cares Alumni
Rest in peace Emily Hughes – friend, colleague, and spark of light in our community. There is a legacy of work in our sector that will always be yours.
A Go Fund Me page raising money for three charities has been set up in memory of Emily.
Jenni Woods is a FACE Executive Member and Associate Director – Widening Participation at Kingston University