Page last updated at 23:12 GMT, Saturday, 1 August 2009 00:12 UK

From chip shop owner to doctor

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Robert Lee
Robert graduates from medical school this summer

Robert Lee left school with a clutch of poor GCSE grades.

He trained in catering and then set up his own fish and chip shop business in the Midlands.

But he knew that he wanted something else and decided to go back to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor.

This month, after eight years of studying, Robert graduates as a doctor and has already set his sights on his next challenge - plastic surgery.

Career change

"My family were ecstatic. When I got my results we all cried," he said.

A recent report on social mobility says that high-status jobs like medicine are becoming less accessible to people like Robert and that the gap between rich and poor is growing deeper.

It was really hard going but the one thing is I am very driven - if I want something I will go for it
Robert Lee

Former minister Alan Milburn, who led an independent panel of experts, delivered a report to the prime minister calling for fairer access to high-earning professions.

Robert said he feels it was only his "driven nature" that helped propel him from a "humble start" in a family where no-one had ever been to university before.

"I had a loving family on a council estate in the Midlands. I had a nice upbringing, but my family always struggled for money.

"I left school at 16 and trained to be a chef and then I met a girl at college, who is now my wife, and we had a baby young," said 33-year-old Robert.

"I had always thought about being a surgeon, even though the profession is so different to anything else in my family.

"I think it was the responsibility of having a daughter that pushed me to do something more with my life and realise my dream."

"I knew I was capable of doing it."

Tough going

So while working in the chip shop full-time, Robert studied to re-sit his GCSEs.

After he got his grades, he enrolled on a couple of courses to gain his A-levels and equivalents.

"It is very difficult. I was studying full-time during the day and then doing night shifts working on the railways putting in fibre optic cables on the side of the railway as well doing some psychiatric care work, which I really enjoyed," he said.

Robert Lee
Robert hopes to specialise as a plastic surgeon

And then he got his place at Peninsula Medical School.

"I remember speaking to the man in charge of admissions who said it was very tough to get in - as soon as they said that, I wanted it even more and thought 'I will show you'," he said.

But he said the first couple of years before he gained sponsorship from the Royal Navy had been particularly tough, as he worked ridiculous hours to fund the five-year course.

"My parents were always quite supportive. But you do reach a point thinking everybody's going to overtake me and be buying their houses in the eight years I'm a student - that's quite hard to swallow.

"You just want a regular job and to go to work and get a salary and there were times when I thought I was mad, I suppose.

"It was really hard going but if I want something I will go for it.

"The hardest thing was having friends from a more privileged background. In the summer holidays when you're working, their parents have bought them a flight to Italy.

"That was hard, because my holidays were 'how many hours can I work'?"

Bright future

But Robert, who is now destined for a naval career, said his success has not only changed his life, but that of his family.

"Going to the Peninsula Medical School has made me a better person and given me the opportunity to live the life that I dreamed about so many years ago.

"As well as being an inspiration to me, it has also inspired my family. My sister has decided to train as a midwife - all from a family where no-one had been to university before.

"We're all delighted with the way things have turned out."

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