Byline: SARAH CHALMERS
THERE is nothing second-best about Laura Spence as she strides confidently across the tree-lined courtyard at Harvard University.
Looking fit and poised, her newly bobbed hair swinging jauntily, the girl from Tyneside clearly adores undergraduate life at one of America's top Ivy League colleges.
'I am having a fantastic time,' she enthuses. 'There are more opportunities here than I could ever have imagined.' Listening to Laura, now 19, chatter excitedly about dormitory life, rowing practice and late-night study marathons it is difficult to reconcile this contented young woman with the image once painted of her by Labour Party spin doctors.
Little over a year ago, Laura, who grew up in a Newcastle suburb, became infamous as the so-called 'Oxford reject'.
Accepted by Harvard, but refused a place to study medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford, she was turned into a cause celebre by New Labour.
Chancellor Gordon Brown used the bewildered teenager as an example of how the 'old boy network' still held sway.
Her rejection, he claimed, was a result of the snobbery and elitism rife within the British Establishment.
Laura, a straight 'A' grade student, was turned down, he said, because she came from a comprehensive school in the North of England.
It was deemed irrelevant that there were scores of other equally qualified youngsters (from public as well as state schools) also turned down for the coveted five places to study medicine at Magdalen.
And the fact that two of the successful five applicants came from comprehensives was simply glossed over. But what of the reluctant celebrity at the centre of the furore?
Making a rare public pronouncement on the debacle, Laura says: 'I never doubted Oxford's decision.' Far from feeling a victim of the Oxbridge selection process, Laura insists she was not worthy of a place and says the interview board was right to turn her down.
'I was a bit upset when I came out of the interview because I knew I hadn't done as well as I thought I could have,' she says.
Describing herself as 'quiet and reticent', she says other candidates who performed better were more deserving of the places.
During a 10-20 minute interview, by three Oxford selectors, Laura was asked academic questions designed to show her powers of reasoning.
'We were sent literature and told what to expect,' she says.
'Maybe I could have prepared better.' Keen to put the unsolicited publicity behind her, Laura chooses her words carefully when asked about her feelings towards New Labour and Gordon Brown.
'I wouldn't say I was used, exactly. But I don't think I was a perfect example of what he was trying to point out because I don't feel that being from the North or a comprehensive mattered in my case.' The frenzy began when Laura's local newspaper ran an article about her acceptance at Harvard, mentioning that, like a fellow pupil at Whitley Bay's Monkseaton Community High School the year before, she had won her place despite being turned down by Oxford.
NONE of this would have happened if I hadn't participated in that newspaper article,' she says. 'But neither I, nor my family, saw it coming. I don't believe in regrets, though, because everything in life is useful.' What fanned the flames further was an interjection from Paul Kelley, Laura's headteacher - later identified as a Labour party 'adviser' - who claimed 'perpetuated elitism and tolerated prejudice' had hindered his star pupil.
In a tone at marked odds to the political mudslinging which characterised those around her, Laura has remained loyal to her American-born former head and is still in email contact with him.
'He blames himself for the fuss, but he didn't intentionally make things difficult for me,' she says. Nevertheless, i t cannot have been easy for a shy teenager to concentrate on her A-level studies under the unremitting glare of the national spotlight. …