Hayley Breen’s first attempt at higher education was beset by problems, and she sadly had to drop out of her degree in Forensic Science in her final year. She took a position as a finance and administration officer for a recruitment company, a far cry from her dream of working as a scientist with animals, and, not surprisingly, she was desperately unhappy.

So, determined not to fall into the trap of a joyless career, Hayley persuaded Student Finance England to reimburse the fees for her initial degree course, so she could wipe the slate clean and start again. The refund process took two years, but as soon as Hayley had confirmation that they would fund a second attempt, she began to apply for courses in Zoology.

Being a Manchester native and needing to stay close to home for family reasons, Hayley applied to the University of Salford. “That was the first experience I had of how friendly, welcoming and accommodating it is at Salford,” says Hayley. “I made my original application through UCAS, which was rejected. So I rang the School of Environment & Life Sciences office and they put me through to the head of admissions, Michelle.

“I told her my grades and experience, and then emailed with all the reasons why I should be allowed to do the course: I sent evidence of all my grades and proof that I could do the work, and they agreed to offer me a place.”

But there was another problem: Student Finance England would only fund two years of study, given her previous attempt at a degree.

“I was convinced they’d never let me in after that,” says Hayley. “It’s such a popular course, and not only had I had to argue my way in, I’d also have to convince them to let me go straight into the second year”.

“So I went away and looked at the modules that made up the Zoology programme, and compared them to everything I’d studied in the first two years of my Forensic Science degree. A lot of the content was theory and lab work, so I was able to demonstrate that not only had I done the work, I was able to do it to a high standard. Also, I’d always had a passionate interest in animal behaviour, when I was growing up I read anything I could get my hands on about the subject. I love the natural world and aquatic ecology; it’s all I’ve ever been interested in. This interest was initially sparked by my Grandad who had a Koi Carp pond in his garden and growing up I would spend any spare time I had going to parks, zoos and immersing myself in all my areas of interest.

“But in college I was told there was no money in Zoology and that I should do something different, so that’s why I originally chose Forensic Science.

“So I wrote to Michelle and told her all about my motivation for doing the course and how I had overcome many hurdles to get to this point. I made sure to evidence the theories and practical skills I had previously gained and in doing so I proved that I was passionate about Zoology. This must have struck a chord with her, and she agreed to give me a chance and let me start in my second year.”

Now aged 28, Hayley graduated in June 2015 with first class honours, so it was a gamble that well and truly paid off.

“I can honestly say I didn’t struggle at all going straight into my second year,” says Hayley. “I just loved it so much and I was prepared to work really hard. I was ready for it.”

But Hayley’s hurdles were far from over, and she faced further heartbreak when her dad passed away at the end of her second year.

“It was really hard,” admits Hayley. “It came to a point where I was really struggling, not because of the work but because I was depressed and grieving. The staff at Salford made it so much easier for me. They’re like a family, I love them. They helped me by recommending a support plan, and we had regular meetings to see how I was coping with my work.

“Everything they’ve done for me is unbelievable, and I wouldn’t have my degree without them. They genuinely care and it really comes across - you’re not just one of 10,000 students, they know you by name. Without their support, I would have left, no question, but I ended up doing really well.”

Hayley is now studying for a Masters in Freshwater and Marine Ecology, after gaining a scholarship with The Queen Mary University of London. “The only reason I am not continuing my studies at Salford is because they don’t do a Masters course in my area of interest, although they are looking into it,” she says. “I will be applying to come back next year for my PhD though. I want to eventually obtain a lecturer position so I can research and teach at the same time, it’s good to pass on what you’ve learnt and I really want to give back some of the help I’ve had.

“I think back now to being told there was no money in zoology and wildlife, and then going onto to choose a degree programme that I didn’t love, but I have found that money doesn’t motivate me. I’m not interested. I want to be able to look back and say I worked as hard as I possibly could for what I believed in. I used to wake up every morning and not want to go to work – now I can’t wait to see what each day brings. That’s why I love research so much – it never ends, it’s always new, and you’re always making discoveries. Times can still be tough, don’t get me wrong, but I can honestly say I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And it’s all thanks to the staff at Salford.”