Rachel Greenwood - the Preston hockey star heading to Harvard

Rachel Greenwood

Rachel Greenwood - Credit: Archant

A chance encounter at a hockey tournament means a Preston student will be crossing the Atlantic to join one of the world’s most prestigious universities - and she’s the only one from the north. Martin Pilkington reports

Rachel with her England shirt while at Kirkham Grammar

Rachel with her England shirt while at Kirkham Grammar - Credit: not Archant

There are thousands of sixth-formers across the county who, like 17-year-old Rachel Greenwood are looking forward to completing their ‘A’ levels this summer before making the leap from home to university. She is unique among them, however, in that she’s the only student from the north heading off to Harvard, America’s oldest and most prestigious university.

The way in which this all started was unusual too. Rachel, who went to Kirkham Grammar prior to becoming a student at Preston’s Cardinal Newman College, is an England Under-18s hockey player and was competing at a national tournament last year when she was approached by a female spectator.

‘She’s a scout for people looking to go to university in America through their hockey, and asked if I was interested. We didn’t know much about it before that, but thought it sounded like a great opportunity and went for it.’

The family knew about university sports scholarships on offer in the USA, with funding split equally male and female. ‘When the scout then wrote and asked if we had any preferences, I replied half tongue-in-cheek that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stamford would be great!’ says her father Colin.

Rachel Greenwood

Rachel Greenwood - Credit: Archant

Several colleges promptly came back offering greatly reduced fees, and even the possibility of a full scholarship but, with their eye on the academic prestige of an Ivy League education, Rachel and her family didn’t rush things. The scout arranged to take video footage of Rachel on the pitch, and obtained film of her playing for England, after which the process accelerated again. An informal interview via Skype was soon followed by an invitation for Rachel and her parents to visit Harvard and Princeton last September, paid for by the universities.

‘At Harvard I met all the field hockey team and they took me round so I got to know them all, and I had an interview which was quite casual really, getting a feel for my interests, just to see what sort of person I am and if I’d fit in over there.

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‘It was an amazing place to visit – beautiful buildings, stunning library, fantastic sports facilities and accommodation. The dining room was like something out of Hogwarts!’

Harvard, established in 1636, clearly caught her imagination. ‘When I got back I filled in my application straight away. It was a very different process to the UK system. I had to do two essays, one about my personality, what makes me me, the other on a topic of my own choice,’ she says.

Rachel Greenwood

Rachel Greenwood - Credit: Archant

Before the visit she had a major academic hoop to jump through, taking the ACT (American College Testing). ‘Princeton were quite relaxed, Harvard were a lot stricter on the scores you have to get,’ she explains, ‘I did a lot of work beforehand, it made the whole process a bit easier when I got to apply and at the interview.’ It’s common for students aspiring to Harvard to take the tests several times to get the right score, but Rachel did it once and achieved the necessary grade.

‘The offer is conditional on continuing “at the same academic standard” so I can’t back off work, but it’s definitely not as much pressure as with a UK offer of grades,’ she says. Everything is, in fact, arranged for her to fly over to Massachusetts mid-August to join pre-season training, and the family has booked her ticket to come home at Christmas.

Her freshman year will involve a wide range of courses before she chooses her majors, probably in the sciences or maths, for the next three.

Ivy League colleges don’t give full scholarships, but her dad explains that Harvard’s ethos is to be affordable to all, so bursaries are given and fees set according to parental income, and though he’s an IT consultant and his wife Jill a business teacher, their earnings are not near the $500,000 at which full fees are charged. ‘The way they package things is different too,’ he says. ‘The fees include just about everything – you have accommodation on campus for all of the four years, and food as well. The dining room is like being on a cruise ship, you get what you want.’ He has calculated that the cost will actually be lower than the contribution he and Jill are making to their son Joe’s medicine course at Southampton, and that they’ll probably see Rachel as often as they do him.

A trip to a Harvard Society function in London has made the family keen to get the word out in Lancashire about the opportunities available in America. ‘At the Harvard meet-and-greet for students going there in the next academic year there were people from the big public schools – including three from Eton – and we were told nearly every year someone from St Paul’s goes, but I was the only student from the north,’ she says.

‘We were shocked that Rachel will be the first student from Newman, which does well with Oxbridge places, to go to Harvard,’ adds Colin. ‘And at that meeting in London, all the others were from schools in and around the capital, and many of them had brothers and sisters at Ivy League colleges, or parents who’d been there. People in the north are missing out, maybe because they think it’s not affordable – it is – or they don’t even know they can apply.’

With Rachel blazing the trail that situation may be changing. ‘I was contacted on Facebook recently by a GCSE student planning to come to Newman,’ says Rachel. ‘She had heard about me getting into Harvard, and was asking all about it as she’s keen to do the same.’ She could be blazing a trail for Lancashire.