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It was back to the classroom for two successful former pupils of a north Manchester high school – but this time as role models.

Justin Onuekwusi and Cynthia Murphy spoke to GCSE students at St Monica’s RC High School about their very different career paths, and also shared memories of their time at the Prestwich school.

Justin, who graduated from the school in 1998, is a top fund manager in the financial services industry, and has been awarded the Freedom of the City of London for his work on diversity and inclusion. And Cynthia, who studied at the school until 2000, is a published author, with two thrillers aimed at young adults – Last One To Die and Win, Lose, Kill, Die – to her name.

The pair were speaking at the launch of the St Monica’s alumni network, which is part of a State Talking pilot project along with four other Greater Manchester schools.

Head teacher Mr Foley hopes the new venture will not only help former students to become reacquainted with their old classmates, but will also increase career aspirations and opportunities for current pupils.

The careers team at the school say that alumni can get involved in school life in a number of ways, including giving inspirational talks about how they found success in their chosen fields. The school will also invite former students to act as mentors and offer opportunities for work experience placements.

Fran Kennedy, founder, State Talking, said: “State Talking works to raise the aspirations of young people in Greater Manchester.

“By introducing pupils to relatable role models, whether as school speakers or mentors, we hope to boost their chances of establishing a rewarding career and encourage them to pursue greater opportunities.

“Our mantra is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

“Part of our work involves supporting state schools to set up effective alumni networks, as the most relatable role models are former pupils.

“Thanks to sponsorship from Cheadle Hulme School and Russell WBHO, we are able to offer these services to schools at no cost.”

Justin, who proudly remembers being given an award for the best attainment in maths, also represented the school at a number of sports including football, rugby and table tennis. He said he had never heard of fund management until he started working in financial services and that he was delighted to explain to St Monica’s students why he finds it such a rewarding career.

He said: “Even though we have access and understanding of a whole range of careers now, an alumni network can still offer some interesting insight, support and guidance to students looking to take their next path.

“I think if the network is carefully positioned as a genuine opportunity for the alumni to give back to current students this could be impactful.”

Cynthia grew up in Whitefield and in addition to writing novels, has taught in both the state and private sectors for over a decade.

She said: “The real difference between private and state schools is the level of opportunity awarded to the pupils.

“Much of this comes from private sector alumni networks – old boys and girls – who come back, speak to and support teens when they are making decisions on their future careers.

“I have worked with pupils who are outstanding in so many ways, but often at state schools there is no time or money to nurture talent in the ways that private schools can.

“Students need to see that people like them have gone on to work in many different areas in order for them to realise that anything is attainable with the right work ethic, support and connections.”

Mr Foley said: “Having an alumni network will help us to achieve our school aim of creating global Catholic citizens whilst also keeping former pupils an integral part of the St Monica’s family. The whole school wants to extend their thanks to Justin and Cynthia for  helping us to launch the network with such a big bang.

“We believe family is at the heart of what we do and we want pupils to remain a part of St Monica’s for the rest of their lives.

“We hope to utilise the wealth of expertise within our alumni to further develop our careers provision. Having successful, relatable role models is one way of raising our pupils’ aspirations; helping them to learn from people who would have once followed the same school path will be invaluable.

We hope to involve alumni in school life by asking them to give inspirational talks to pupils, offering mentoring opportunities and providing them with an alumni newsletter to continue their connection with the school after they leave.”

You can register as a St Monica’s alumnus on their website