Charley Gibbons

People often ask Charley Gibbons why he opted to study for a religious studies degree, but he is convinced that it is the perfect preparation for his chosen career – championing the rights of some of the most deprived people in the UK, to have justice, shelter and food on the table.

His work as CEO of Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau is hard, but Charley is passionate about it, leading a team which assists 14,000 people a year on problems ranging from migration problems to benefits problems, many of them resulting from maladministration. His team has to come up with practical solutions to help the increasing number of people turning up at the CAB with absolutely no money.

"If we have difficulties, they often come down to religion or culture," he says. "What I learned at Lancaster has helped me understand these issues and to know what kind of services we should provide."

His teenage self could not have visualised himself in this role when he arrived at Lancaster. Brought up in a church-going family in a village near Southampton, Lancaster felt 'massive', even though the small university campus had been a big draw. He only knew that his interest was in people and what affected how they behaved.

A family holiday to Israel and Jerusalem at the age of 15 had fired an interest in Judaism, which developed into a passion for other religions, and an inspiring RE teacher guided him towards Lancaster. Ninian Smart had set up the UK's first department of religious studies there in 1967, with a focus on contemporary religion in a modern setting, without the need for faith, and in the context of world religions. This was a magnet for Charley.

Making friends was so easy that after about 10 weeks he says he felt he'd lived at Lancaster all his life. Several of those he met in his first week at Furness have become close friends. A certain student from St Martin's College called Tina, who he first encountered in the former Brooks Night Club, also went on to become his wife.

He played cricket for the university – captaining the 2nd team for a year and playing for the 1st team. He also played football for Furness and enjoyed many college darts nights.

Academically he loved the flexibility of the course, which allowed him to choose study subjects that really interested him.

Lectures by Professor Robert Segal on Judaism stick in his memory: "I loved his lectures," recalls Charley. "At the end of 50 minutes I would leave the lecture theatre exhausted, but inspired."

The conflicts in Israel and involving its Islamic neighbours, gripped him as he listened to the expert and realised how often the clashes were caused or motivated by religion. This struck home at the time and remains relevant.

"People ask me why I did RE for a degree, but it is fundamental to understanding how society works and is particularly relevant in a place like Coventry, which is so multi-cultural."

His initial plan on graduation was to train as a teacher, but he decided to take a gap year – involving working on an Israeli kibbutz and on a community programme in a deprived part of Chicago. The experience completely changed his mind. He saw how political systems could improve life for vulnerable people and knew he wanted to be based in the heart of the community, campaigning on behalf of those least able to do so themselves.

Charley took a six-month contract working for an advice agency in Leicester as a money and debt advisor and admits he had not much of a clue at first, but knew what he was doing was worthwhile. He also learned to fundraise. The job put him in the right place to be offered another – running a CAB office in Leicestershire.

"It was a baptism of fire," recalls Charley. His task was to merge several CABs, which involved sensitive employment issues, managing people with much more experience than himself. It did not put him off, despite his inexperience, and he found himself excited by the need to learn so much and so quickly. It gave him the confidence to go for the job heading Coventry's CAB in 2008, where he is today – in charge of more than 60 staff and 120 volunteers.

"Advice changes lives," he says. "Even when there is nothing that we, CAB, can do, we can still raise awareness and campaign for change. My office looks out at the entrance of the CAB and I notice the difference in the way people look as they arrive and leave – often they leave looking physically taller!"

Today he sees his life as having been shaped by his university years: "Lancaster was a key part of my life in terms of career choice, marriage, children and friends. You go in at 18 all anxious, clutching a cake from your mum, and you come out three years later as an adult with a mind of your own."