This time 10 years ago, at the grand old age of 38, with a young family to support and 5 O’ levels to my name, I decided to go to University. It was the most terrifying decision I have ever made – but also one of the best. Without question, giving up my job, my salary and, in some ways, my ‘old life’, and jumping head first into the world of Higher Education as a mature student proved to be a fantastically positive and rewarding experience. Here’s why.
Excited as I was about starting my student journey, my responsibilities as a parent loomed large and initially threatened to overwhelm my enthusiasm. Being honest with my tutors about the need for me to have some flexibility helped to create a dialogue in which I was able to explain any absences or an early finish here and there without concerns being raised. Truth to be told – I didn’t want to miss a class or seminar if I could possibly help it – I started to love the sense of comradery with my fellow students and didn’t want to miss a thing. I may have been (just about) old enough to be their mum, I was by far the oldest student in my cohort, but I was welcomed by the people on my course and even now, the snippets I hear about how they’re getting on fills me with delight at what they have achieved.
OK, so I wasn’t dancing down Wind Street on a Wednesday night – but there were certainly a few memorable evenings out and many stories shared over a coffee. The enthusiasm and energy of these young people on the cusp of their adult life was infectious and they accepted my quirks of espousing the joys of 9am lectures, bemoaning their reliance on technology and my love of the library. Oh how I loved the library – the utter joy of being free to read, indeed of being required to read, to peruse the library aisles unfettered by parental guilt.
Completing my course became about far more than the hope that I might get a better job at the end of it. In fact, employability wasn’t really in the picture at that time – it was more a sense that I would, by improving my education and raising my awareness about societal issues, find the right path for me. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t need to get a job after I graduated (I would really need to get a job) but my new found confidence in my academic abilities opened up a world of possibility that I simply hadn’t contemplated before.
And it wasn’t that I didn’t sometimes have sleepless nights about the myriad of ways that my crazy decision could backfire and leave my family destitute (I did – so many of them) but rather that, every new friendship made, every deadline hit, every mark that came back that was better than the last, contributed to an emerging picture of myself that I didn’t recognise. My experience of education in a rough and tumble comprehensive had left me wary of testing my academic abilities, too ready to dismiss my inherent love of books and knowledge as something only ‘clever’ people got to pursue full time.
By the end of the first year my brain felt as though it had expanded. Trained to think critically – I engaged with the world around me on a different level; not a news article or TV programme went unevaluated (I must have been a joy to live with!). By the end of the second year, I was starting to get over my fear of exams, by year three I didn’t want it to end but consoled myself with the knowledge that I was working hard to get the best possible grades. Writing my dissertation whilst simultaneously looking after kids and doing up a house whilst my partner worked two jobs was tough for all four of us – but we got there.
For some, going to Uni may be something to get out of the way before ‘real life’ can begin. For me, it was a wonderful hiatus, a space in which I could re-evaluate what I wanted for myself and my family and discover what my ‘real life’ could look like.
And, Reader…I got a first (and won a sports car, but that’s another story…)
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