Claire Povah talks about her time at university and how she has stayed on to improve other students' experiences.

Claire Povah did not go to university as a teenager because of her bad experience at another institution’s open day which convinced her it was not for her, and now, in a bid to turn the tables, her total work focus is on making a student’s time at Lancaster University as successful and enjoyable as it can be. 

As both Principal of Graduate College and Head of Strategic Development for Student Services at Lancaster University, Claire is constantly on the lookout for the best ideas from research and other institutions to improve students’ experiences of study. She also leads on the Student Journey Mapping Project, to gain information on which services people actually use and how effective they are. 

“I’m a real ideas person,” she says, but admits that her studies at Lancaster have provided the structure for her to put her ideas into practice and advance her career in a way that she would never have never imagined before her degree. “It would never have entered my mind that one day I would be Principal of one of Lancaster’s colleges.” 

Brought up in Liverpool and Blackpool, Claire refused to consider university at 18, after a bad experience at an open day. She left sixth form and headed to London as a secretary for Lyons Tetley, before deciding to return to the North West, where she took on the first of a number of administrative roles at St Martin’s College. This brought her into contact with Lancaster University. Suddenly, at the age of 30, she realised that everyone around her had a degree. She decided to use her savings, move in with her mother in Lancaster and temp during the holidays to enable her to do a full-time degree in Organisation Studies and HRM. 

After years of independent living, Claire says she felt like ‘a fish out of water’ alongside the younger students and that she found the experience hard. But she says: “It gave me a passion for exploring way-out ideas. Now I feel as though I am some kind of sponge, always looking for new ideas and how to develop them.” 

Following graduation she temped, moved briefly to the South of England with her husband’s work and on her return to Lancaster started working at Ascentis (formerly the Open College of the North West) concentrating on defining service standards. This led her to LUMS as Executive Programmes Manager with responsibility for executive management and leadership development programmes. 

In her drive to achieve the best she can, Claire decided her ideas needed to be challenged so she enrolled on a two-year Masters programme at Lancaster in Organisational Change / Developing Professional Practice alongside her full-time job. She found it very tough balancing work with study and ascribes her survival to having a good support network at home, at work and among her fellow course members, many of whom were NHS staff. It was her Master's that reignited her passion for learning, that step up to independent learner was both challenging and exciting. “My Master's is when everything started to click into place for me. I gradually began to see that there was a road map of how to do it. That also started to help me to question theory.” 

Reflection on learning is something she has incorporated into her daily work since her graduation with distinction. A number of concepts that she learned crop up regularly in her current fast-changing job. She says: “I find myself applying concepts and ideas to my work, particularly when dealing with change, I’m forever referring back to Fisher’s Change Curve." The upshot has been a new focus on student welcome communications and the development of a welcome pack of materials designed to give recipients what Apple describes as the ‘spike of joy’ on opening it. 

Claire is also currently looking at a new project to help students to build resilience through mindfulness, as research indicates that it is particularly lacking in this group. 

She says: “I think my degree gave me (someone who didn’t think uni was for me) the confidence to take opportunities and try them. Even if I’d set a five-year plan I wouldn’t have said ‘one day I will be Principal of a college at Lancaster’. However, here I am.”