While studying at the University of Bristol, Sophie Pender (BA 2017) founded the 93% Club to support university students who went to state school. With over 45 clubs across the country, the 93% Club is now a nationwide charity and the UK’s largest community of state-educated students. Sophie is also a lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills and a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient.
As winner of this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Award, Sophie speaks candidly about her time at university, why the 93% Club is so important and how telling her story has helped turn things around.
On growing up
I grew up in a council estate in Mill Hill in north London. It was mainly my mum who raised me and we were very poor. My dad struggled with alcoholism and he died when I was in my mid-teens. Children who grow up in unstable homes tend to cling to some form of stability, and for me that was education. From a young age I was very bright, and I took a lot of validation from school reports and parents’ evenings. I thought to myself, if I become successful in my career, I won’t have to experience what has happened to me previously.
So, I set my sights on going to university. I worked at McDonalds and John Lewis while studying for my A-Levels and I was the first person in my school to get three A*s. I was so proud of myself! And of course, I was absolutely delighted to get an offer to the University of Bristol, one of the best universities in the UK. No one in my family had gone to university so I didn’t know what to expect – it felt like an aspirational thing, as if the job was done once you got your foot through the door. I saw it as the end of the race, rather than the start of a new one.
On starting university
I’m an outgoing person so when I started university, I wasn’t afraid to meet new people. But it wasn’t long until I started to feel a bit out of place. When one of my flatmates told me her parents had given her an allowance for the year, I asked her how much they had given her. She was very offended and told me I was rude. I felt so confused. Growing up, me and my friends had always talked about money – no one really had any, so it wasn’t rude to do so. I also felt confused when people would ask me what school I went to – how would they know my school? Over time, I realised people were trying to work out if I had gone to a recognisable public school. It seems like a conversation starter but it’s a form of social sorting, to figure out if someone fits into the same economic bracket as you.
My first year at Bristol was spent figuring out these different social codes that I didn’t understand and learning that my own social codes weren’t really reflected in the people I was surrounded by. Some students hosted ‘chav’ parties, made comments about council estates, and mocked my accent. I was trying to navigate this new world while working three part time jobs and I didn’t have a strong social support network. It made it hard to feel like I could fit in.
On setting up the 93% Club
I was in my second year when I decided to set up a Facebook group called the 93% Club, to reflect the fact that 93% of the UK population go to a state school but we are disproportionately represented at Russell Group universities like Bristol. We only needed 30 sign ups to become a student society, but we got 500 sign ups in the first year.
Initially, I spent a lot of time defending the Club’s existence: my resounding memory of our first stall at Fresher’s Fair is the hecklers trying to embarrass us. But my gut was telling me I had to keep going. So while I was defending the Club, I was also getting sponsors on board! One of the first things I did was attend a graduate recruitment fair. I asked every recruiter there how many state school-educated employees they had at their institution – if they had loads, I would ask them to sponsor the 93% Club and if they had poor representation, I’d tell them I had a really talented pool of Bristol students they could access if they sponsored the Club. My message was, I need your money and you need my students!
The Club felt like an extension of myself – when people criticised it, it felt like they were criticising me and the people I went to school with. I thought to myself, I’m going to defend this Club and the people in it like they’re my family. That is still how I feel today and it’s what has kept me going, even when people were telling me to stop.
After running the 93% Club for a couple of years, I felt like I needed to do something for me. So, I passed the Club onto the next generation and took some time off. Herbert Smith Freehills was one of the 93% Club’s first sponsors and that is how I got my training contract with them.
As a child, I had always thought there were three professions – archaeology (because I absolutely loved dinosaurs), medicine and law. Being a lawyer seemed the most obvious one for my skillset, and the most stable. Being professionally secure and employable is extremely important to me – it’s hard to understand the true meaning of security until you’re unsure if you can afford the food you need to buy for the week. I didn’t want to be back in that place. By training as a lawyer, I felt like I would always be employable.
On developing the 93% Club
It was in 2019 when I was doing a talk about how the 93% Club had helped me in my law training when my LinkedIn blew up with requests from other universities asking for help setting up their own 93% Clubs. I was pulled right back in, helping set up three a week across the country! Eventually I formed a national committee with founders of the first six Clubs and we’re now a registered charity – as a unified voice we can be more powerful and share resources between us.
First and foremost, we’re a community. One of the most powerful things that an individual can have to support their growth and experience is a network, but this is often what students from state schools lack. Whenever I’m invited to an event, I ask for a plus one and bring a student from the 93% Club so they can meet some new people. Networking doesn’t have to mean having a coffee with the CEO – it’s about making friends and showing up for them. It’s about treating everyone with respect and knowing that anyone at any level in their career could one day be useful to you, or you to them. I’m a strong believer that you get back what you put out into the world.
We partner with theatres to get discounted tickets for students who went to state school and we run events to support students with their career development. Recently, we ran the Social Mobility Factory – we had 140 students attend, we took 122 professional headshots, we ran 64 mock interviews and we worked with a provider to give ten students fully funded gap years.
We acknowledge that there is a privilege of going to a private school and we try and give some of those advantages back to state school students. We’re not overthrowing the system, we’re opening it up for more people to access.
I spent a lot of years hiding who I was. I completely changed my accent, for example, because I didn’t think my voice was acceptable. For a long time, I didn’t speak about my dad, I pretended he hadn’t died, and I made up a career for him. At the time, it felt so much easier than telling the truth and having people look at me strangely. I would never invite friends from university back to my council house because I was embarrassed – would they judge me?
Socioeconomic background is not something you can see. Talking to me today, you wouldn’t know where I’ve come from, unless I talk about it and tell you how my experience has impacted me. Over time I realised that if we don’t talk about these things, then we prohibit change. I learnt that by not sharing my story, I was also disassociating from myself. I realised that the more transparent I could be about my experience, the more comfortable other people felt being transparent with me.
On receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s Award
Receiving this award has been extremely validating. My time as a student at Bristol was quite complicated and I didn’t really find my place here; I never felt like I properly belonged. So to receive this award and to be recognised by the organisation as someone they are proud of feels very special.
Above all, it’s so good knowing other students from working class backgrounds or state schools will see themselves reflected in these awards. Me receiving this award says to those students – there is a place here for you too. This is your world as much as it is anyone else’s. That is beautiful.
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. From highly successful tech entrepreneurs to an award-winning journalist, the 2022 winners are all inspirational leaders in their fields. You can see the full list of our 2022 winners on our website.