If there’s one thing we’ve seen at Hotcourses, it’s that everyone can turn their lives around through learning. No matter your background or situation, education is monumental in making a positive difference.
This is especially true for CJ Burge, one of the Festival of Learning regional winners who has come leaps and bounds following a stint in prison abroad at a young age. Education essentially became her lifeline and now she’s on course to graduating with a first-class degree in Law.
When we hear about these stories, they usually start with an individual not being very engaged with education and not having many opportunities to dream big. This wasn’t the case for a young CJ who had aspirations.
“I was really fortunate and had a really good education. I grew up in Singapore, went to a private school,” she told me.
“The main thing I remember was the fact that the school didn’t want to have differences between people. So, I think that really instilled in me from that moment to have a very inclusive outlook on life, to see everybody as the same, and from an early age I wanted to become a lawyer and help people, so that was always there.”
Very early on in our conversation, the realisation dawned on me that life can throw curveballs to everybody and no one is exempt from making mistakes and bad choices. CJ told me more about how she found herself in trouble with money and how that led her to making choices like getting involved with the wrong people. She found herself travelling and leading a double life, which ultimately made her studies suffer.
"I was supposed to come back to the UK and the idea was that I would bring back a bag or something. It was never really discussed with me but I understood that I was doing something wrong and that they would pay me some money. No one in my life knew I was doing this, I guess because I hadn’t let anyone else know what kind of position I was in, it was getting harder and harder to maintain that false life with everything being okay," she told me.
Before she knew it, CJ found herself flying to Japan where she was arrested straight away in customs. What struck me the most was the way she talked about mentally preparing herself for the worst whilst in the police car. In such an outlandish situation, I almost expected her to be in denial about the severity of the situation.
“To be honest there were times throughout my time on remand and going to trial that I was praying because actually when I did end up seeing a lawyer he was like: ‘You’re going to get double digits.’ At the time as well, I was pregnant and I was just thinking: ‘I am never going to see my child till she’s like 12 or 15 or 20,’ so obviously things changed at that point.
“Initially I think the whole process of being in the airport, being arrested and that interrogation process made me realise how serious this was. You know, in my mind I was just carrying a package. I didn’t really allow myself to think about the gravity, the reality of what I was doing, the people I was hurting,” she explained.
She spoke more about this new environment and how she navigated her thought process and feelings during this time.
The arrest and realisation of the situation she was in set the wheels in motion where CJ found herself embracing learning. Education was essential for her survival.
“I was in solitary confinement the whole time I was on remand for nine months. I felt like I had no choice really but to learn the language if I was going to survive that system and if I was going to be able to express what I needed to the guards because I wasn’t allowed to have contact with anybody else. So, my parents sent me some basic Japanese books and I taught myself Japanese,” she explained.
Faced with a nine-and-a-half-year sentence and a harsh prison environment in Japan, education was the one thing that kept her sane in a strict regime. CJ talks more about embracing learning during this time:
Thanks to a Prisoner Transfer Agreement between Japan and the UK, CJ was able to get a transfer back to the UK after serving a third of her sentence. Though closer to home, the experience in prison here opened CJ’s eyes to the reality facing a lot of people within the UK prison system. She explained to me that roughly 11% of people who are released from prison have a safe place to sleep at night. The majority of people have to register as homeless. There are some extenuating circumstances where people may be placed on a priority list, which CJ was because she had a child. Those who do not have dependents however, will be placed on a waiting list.
CJ was able to obtain a ROTL (Release on Temporary License) where she volunteered within the community. She chose to a Level 3 course in Advice and Guidance with St. Giles Trust, which was equivalent to two A Levels.
She’s since gone on to work at St. Giles Trust, a charity that helps disadvantaged people overcome issues and find jobs, homes and the support they need to become positive contributors to society. Giving back was incredibly important to CJ as she reflected on the effects of adult learning and how significant it had been throughout her journey.
As adults, learning and furthering our education may not be a priority especially when we’re working full time jobs. However, CJ is proof that no matter what situation you find yourself in, education can offer a lifeline to better opportunities.
Being honoured at the Festival of Learning has also been a great experience for her – although she didn’t believe her nomination would result in a win.
“I thought there must be hundreds and thousands of people who do this in their daily lives who don’t get acknowledged you know. It was a real surprise and shock when I found out I was a regional winner for social impact. It’s just been amazing and the festival of learning, it’s not just like it’s an award ceremony and that’s it, you’re forgotten, they really believe in what they’re trying to support and encourage,” CJ said.
So what advice would she give to people who are thinking about getting back into education, but perhaps feels apprehensive?
Whether people are facing an uphill struggle or simply want to better themselves, CJ’s story is proof that anyone can make a change with enough determination. However, it’s her humility that really strikes a chord with me.
“We are all just normal people, just average people. I made a terrible mistake, so to just have that acknowledgement and recognition and encouragement is beautiful, there’s nothing more I can say.”
Safeera is Editor of Whatuni and a journalist from Kingston University. Always the inquisitive, her writing spans across a number of areas such as sustainability, fashion, lifestyle and now education. Her belief that you never stop learning and passionate nature has taken her to New York City as part of her degree and across the airwaves on national radio talking about the issues that matter to her.