Law student Zain Umer, 23, has many things to be proud of. He co-founded his own business, importing segways from China, and started a charity, Youth4Charity, which has raised more than £100,000 over the last three years.
Now he is celebrating another major achievement – winning a place on the highly competitive Civil Service fast-track graduate scheme.
He is due to start in September, but not before travelling to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan this summer to provide humanitarian support with this charity.
Zain, from Chadwell Heath, Essex, is coming to the end of his three-year LLB law at UEL’s Royal Docks School of Business and Law. He and his brother and sister were the first generation in his family to go to university.
“I left college and went to a big university in central London,” he recounts. “It was big, impersonal, and I just felt like a small part of a machine, so I left.”
Rather than see this as a failure, Zain swiftly found himself a job as a trainee construction manager, with considerable responsibility and a decent salary for his age, but it lacked the sense of fulfilment he needed.
“I was enjoying a rare, week-long holiday in Tunisia with family when I had a flash of inspiration and decided I’d pursue a degree in law,” said Zain.
“At the time, UEL had just opened a new campus in Stratford for the law department, along with a new and large law library. My sister also studied here and had a good experience, so I felt confident that it was the best choice.
“I was sitting on the beach in my swimming shorts and laptop and called Sharon Levy, the Head of Law. She said, ‘You know the year started two weeks ago? You’ve got ten minutes to send me a personal statement’.
“So there I was on the beach furiously writing the best personal statement possible and I emailed it off. Ten minutes later Sharon called me and said ‘You’re in, catch the next plane back for your first lecture tomorrow morning’. She was jesting, of course, but I was really pleased, even though I ended up with a £140 phone bill.”
Zain says his time at UEL has been very positive, especially the amount of time that staff give to supporting students. So how did he decide the Civil Service was the next step?
“I love law, and my time at UEL has opened up new horizons, and one of them was the Civil Service,” he said.
“It was really thanks to an email that was sent around to students from the Careers and Employability Service (CaSE) inviting us to an event about working at the Civil Service, which of course I went to.”
“CaSE went the extra mile, getting Civil Service staff to meet with us and give advice about the application process. CaSE also arranged a whole mock assessment day at the UEL Canary Wharf suite, which was great preparation.”
Zain describes the actual assessment day as one of the most intense days of his life.
He said, “I was there for about nine and a half hours, doing e-tray challenges, drafting policy suggestions for ministers, completing psychometric tests, and an hour-long interview at the end. It was tough.
“I got a call two days later. This time I was on the train not the beach. The lady on the other end told me who she was from and that she had some good news. They were offering me a place on the civil service graduate fast stream starting in September.
“I couldn’t get my words out, and spluttered something, so she had to ask again if I accepted. I did of course, and thanked her lots.
“I called my mum straight away to tell her. She’s my biggest source of inspiration, so sharing that with her was special.”
Zain says the Civil Service has been great, making a Facebook group for all new starters. “There’s about 300 of use in a Facebook group, and we get assigned a buddy to support us during the coming months and the start of the training scheme.”
Zain will experience a number of placements with different government departments, including a six-month stint in the north of England to work on a transport project.
He said, “I don’t know what I’d like to do yet, so the fast track will give me a good overview and I can decide from there. I want to use the time to find out where I can make the best impact for others.”
With so many impressive achievements under his belt already, it’s no surprise Zain has some real words of wisdom.
“I remember applying for a grad scheme with a prestigious organisation, and sitting in the waiting room with people who had master’s degrees from Oxbridge, and high achievers who had flown in from Hong Kong and New York. You might have the impression that there are certain things you can’t apply for, but you can. So do.
“Another bit of advice is to use what’s offered to you, and use your contacts. CaSE have sent me some quality job and internship opportunities. I also got work experience thanks to contacts among family and friends, so ask around.
“I’d also say that your degree is just one part of your time at university. I’ve found that job assessments and interviews spend about 20 per cent of the time asking about your degree. They’re much more interested in what else you’ve done – paid work, volunteering, student societies, activities outside of university, and examples of taking on responsibilities and being a leader.
“My advice is to work hard and push yourself.”