When construction worker Liam Knights was building the Laidlaw Library at the University of Leeds, he vowed he was going to study at the prestigious institution.
But after time spent sleeping on the streets and a brief spell in prison, his laudable ambition was met with laughter and disbelief.
Two years later, the 25-year-old is about to finish his first year studying criminology after he was chosen by an anonymous donor to receive a scholarship awarded to students from troubled backgrounds.
The determined student now harbours an aspiration to help reform education in the prison service in a bid to help inmates transform their lives.
Originally from Keighley, Mr Knights left school when he was 16 after moving out of his parents’ house.
He said: “I ended up getting into a bit of trouble and I was homeless for five years. I also ended up in prison. I got work as a builder after that and I started to get back on track. I ended up building the new library here and that spurred me on.
“I told people I would be at uni next year and some actually laughed. Some were supportive, but they didn’t believe me. I ended up here the following September.”
Mr Knights attempted to go to college but he was refused entry as he did not have his GCSEs. He was given a lifeline when the university helped him to enrol onto a social sciences foundation course. It provided him with the qualifications he needed to do his degree, and he is now studying on one of the best criminology courses in the country.
He said: “When I was homeless I used to go and sit in the library all day in Bradford and just read about things that interested me. I came here with the view of doing politics, but we did a module of criminology on the course last year and I was just drawn to it.”
He now hopes to draw on his experiences to help inform prison policies, with a particular focus on education.
He said: “I think education is the way out of poverty and it’s really important. I am proof you can have a life after prison. When I got sent there, everyone said my life was over and it turned out it wasn’t. Education has done that.
“I was in prison for four and a half months in Doncaster. I was the treasurer at a bingo hall and at the same time I was squatting and I ended up taking money. When I went to prison I thought I would get some qualifications because that’s what must happen. But I got there and did levels in customer service and literacy and numeracy.
“I was told this was a GCSE equivalent, but when I applied for college it wasn’t recognised, so it was completely pointless. I think the university should run a module in prison that would link to coming into a foundation year.”
Mr Knights hopes to eventually complete a postgraduate degree and even a PHD.
“Going to university has also helped me to start repairing the relationship with my family. It has changed my life,” he said.
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