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.
'I just got on with my revision and didn't watch TV for a week,' she says.
'I had already been accepted at Harvard so I didn't need my A-level results, but I did feel under pressure to do well because, if I had done badly, some people would have revelled in it.' When her results came out - five A-grade A-level passes - Laura went to the pub with friends to celebrate. A week-and-a-half later, she flew to Boston to begin the most exciting chapter in her life.
In accordance with the American education system, Laura is enrolled in a four-year general degree course. In her first year, she studied eight different subjects and is now majoring in biology. To qualify as a doctor, she will have to complete a medical degree upon graduation.
LAURA has 22 hours of classes a week and four hours of homework a day. She also trains two hours a day for the Varsity rowing team and plays viola in an orchestra.
American student culture does not revolve around alcohol as the legal drinking age is 21.
'My experience is very different from friends at British universities,' Laura laughs. 'When I was home at Christmas, one friend told me they go to different pubs on different nights. I said: "You go out every night of the week?"
'University in America is more like school because we have homework that we have to hand in each day. We don't go to the pub, but we do have ice-cream parties.' It may not ring true with what many British people remember of undergraduate life, but Laura clearly thrives on the Harvard atmosphere.
And in a further blow to the Chancellor she hints that she may not even have accepted the place at Oxford, had it been offered. 'Being away from home has given me a totally different experience which would have been very hard to turn down,' she says.
Laura applied to Harvard after falling in love with Boston during two teenage trips to the New England city with her school orchestra.
'I had no idea what it was going to be like, but it was a very rigorous selection procedure,' she explains.
Laura was nervous about moving so far from Newcastle and sharing a dormitory with three strangers.
But any qualms soon evaporated.
'We are all in the same boat here: one of my roommates is from Serbia and some of the Americans live a four-hour flight away.' Laura admits to missing her family and two spaniel dogs, but has made only two brief trips home. She has been too busy, she says, to be seriously homesick.
And although coy on details, Laura admits to her first romance. She is seeing a fellow first-year student named Andrew, but adds: 'It is the summer holiday now, so no one sees anyone for three months.
We will just have to wait and see what happens.' Study, however, remains Laura's first priority; she has scored Bs and 'some As' in her first-year exams.
'I feel under pressure to do well - not from my parents, who are happy as long as I am happy - but because I am thinking ahead to what I will do in four years' time.' Laura still wants to be a doctor, and recently completed a two-week work placement at a cancer centre in a hospital in Britain.
When she graduates, she will probably return to the UK and begin a medical degree, and may include Oxford or Cambridge in her applications.
And if she does apply to Oxford again, she says she will work hard to 'improve' upon her last selection interview.
Currently, she is enrolled in an American summer school and is cramming a 28-week chemistry course into an eight-week term.
'In the long run, it will make me a better doctor because I will have had four more years to be certain this is what I want to do. At 18, when you start university, you are too young to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.' It is hard not to surmise that rejection by Oxford was the best thing that ever happened to Laura Spence.…