Agnes Harding wants to become the UK’s first black astronaut. She achieved straight A's in her A-levels and was given offers to study physics at four Russell Group universities.
But when she started filling out the application form for a student loan, Harding came across questions she couldn’t answer.
The 19-year-old has lived in the UK since she was 4 and was educated in London. But she found out to her surprise that she wouldn’t be eligible to receive student finance as she was born in Gambia and is a Gambian national, and doesn't have indefinite leave to remain here.
She got in touch with Let Us Learn, a campaign for non-UK-born young people to have access to student finance. Harding was part of its "Young, Gifted and Blocked" movement to call on universities to offer scholarships to talented young people who can’t get loans due to their immigration status. But months of campaigning didn't result in a scholarship in her case, and she was faced with the predicament of having to pay £9,250 per year for tuition fees, let alone living expenses.
But thanks to the kindness of hundreds of people, Harding has just started at Manchester university. Her story gained traction, and a supporter, Sonia Joy Sarre, a school secretary, was moved to create a campaign asking the public to help pay for Harding's fees and expenses on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.
Sarre told BuzzFeed News that she read about Harding’s situation and felt “outraged, sad, and had to act”. She spoke to Harding’s parents, and created the crowdfund thinking “it was absolutely not good that this very deserving young lady should miss out on an education just because of bureaucracy.”
So thanks to over £14,000 in donations, from nearly 400 people, Harding just started her first year as a physics student.
Harding is just one of hundreds of students who have turned to the generosity of strangers to support their studies this year.
Statistics revealed to BuzzFeed News by GoFundMe, one of the most popular crowdfunding sites, show the extent of young people turning to crowdfunding to help them afford further education.
The figures give a monthly breakdown of the number of campaigns for university-related funding in the site's "education" category from UK-based fundraisers, and the total amount crowdfunded.
A total of £323,110 has been raised from January this year to September this year, across over 500 campaigns. The total raised is five times higher than the 2016 total of £139,806, although GoFundMe stressed to BuzzFeed News that their official UK launch at the start of 2017 could explain this jump.
John Coventry, head of UK communications at GoFundMe, told BuzzFeed News, “We’ve seen a real upward trend of people using GoFundMe to finance their higher education or costs related to it.
“University fees have gone up, and as such people are turning to GoFundMe to help minimise debt.
“It’s also likely that as GoFundMe has grown in the UK, people see it as a quick and efficient way of asking for financial support, and friends and family find it easy to contribute to a loved one’s future.”
Harding told BuzzFeed News that she has been “overwhelmed” by the response to her crowdfund.
“I could have never imagined that strangers would be so supportive,” she said.
Aside from paying her tuition fees, the money will help to fund around £140 a week for rent, and around £75 a week for other expenses like food and travel, according to the crowdfunding page.
The help the campaign gave her wasn’t just financial, Harding explained; the messages people posted to support her were encouraging too. They include messages like "Thank you for being such an inspiration! #dontgiveup" and "Make us proud!"
Harding said she thinks there aren't many financial options for students if they aren't able to apply for a loan. Let Us Learn say hundreds of others are in her position because of their immigration status. “University is expensive," Harding said, "and not a lot of people can afford it without any sort of help. If there were other ways to get the funding required, I don't think that people would use GoFundMe as much. For example, if there were more scholarships for people like me, that would really help.”
Harding started her course last week and she said she’s loving it. “It's very challenging to say the least, but what would be the point if it wasn't?
“I love a challenge and I'm very up for it. It was definitely worth the wait, and I'm glad that I kept fighting for it, because I'm doing what I love.”
She said she has a fully packed timetable with lectures every day, in astrophysics and maths as well as physics. Harding said, “It’s quite an intense course and there’s also a lot of outside reading and questions that you have to do because you know, it’s one of those things you have to keep practising.”
She's joined the astronomy society, the Christian Union, the women’s campaign, and the gospel choir. She said that she enjoyed freshers’ week – though she managed to contract freshers’ flu.
Harding said: “I’ve tried to join a bit of everything to keep me well-rounded. Sometimes you just need a break. I’ve met lots of new people from my course from my accommodation and they’re good people. Definitely making the most of it.”
She added, “It means so much to me and I would never have been able to begin my course if it weren't for the generosity of all of these people.”
However, the money raised doesn’t cover her for her entire course, so she will have to continue to crowdfund, or find support another way, to continue the degree next year.
“I would love to reach my goal," she told BuzzFeed News. “I need to. I still have a long way to go to get enough money just to cover my four years' tuition fees.”
Since she found out about her situation, Harding has worked with Let Us Learn, which is a youth-led movement set up by Just for Kids Law, an organisation that aims to help young people “through the rule of law and child-centred advocacy.” She's spoken on television and radio about getting all students access to university.
The Let Us Learn campaign is continuing to work for changes, and wants to see further developments like the 2015 case of 20-year-old Zambian-born Beaurish Tigere, who came to the UK when she was 6 and legally challenged the student finance rules. As a result the Supreme Court lifted the blanket ban on people who are not UK nationals being eligible for student finance. In some cases, if people have lived here for half of their lives and meet other criteria, they can now be eligible for funding.
For now, Harding is focused on her new studies and her ultimate dream of going into space. “I have always been a bit of a daredevil, and to get the opportunity to go into space is just mind-blowing to me. I am fascinated with the great unknown and would love to be part of a field that does such inspiring work.”
“As a physicist, I hope to contribute towards making the world a better place, through using what can be learned through space exploration and through other means of research too.”
She says a particular inspiration is the film Hidden Figures, about the black women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race, which she got to watch during her time campaigning with Let Us Learn. She even has a poster from the film in her university room, “just as motivation anytime the work gets difficult and I need a little push.”
“It was the most amazing film. I felt as though if these women could essentially change the field of space exploration in that way with all the barriers they had to fight through, then I could certainly do it.”