Like many PhD students, Aimée Lê needed her hourly paid job – as an English lecturer – to stay afloat. But what her students never guessed was that for two years while she taught them she was living in a tent.
Lê decided to live outside as a last resort when she was faced with a steep rent increase in the third year of her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, and realised she would not be able to afford a flat and cover all her costs on her research and teaching income.
She recalls: “It was cold. It was a small one-person tent, which meant after a bit it did get warmer. But there were days when I remember waking up and my tent was in a circle of snow. When I wasn’t doing my PhD or other work I was learning how to chop wood or start a fire.”
She stored her books in the postgraduate office so they wouldn’t be damaged, and showered at university. She “didn’t quite tell” her parents, saying to them that she was staying on an ecological farm so as not to worry them.
Nor did she tell her university, which insisted this week that the welfare of all its students was paramount and that it encouraged anyone struggling to reach out for support. Lê says she led a double life, fearful that it might damage her professional reputation if people knew she was homeless.
“I got good reviews from students. I marked 300 GCSEs in a hotel lobby. I even organised an international conference. I was working to a very high standard and I was incredibly focused,” she says.