By Justine Lister – proud mature student and lifelong learner
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” – Benjamin Franklin
What do the following people have in common? Joe Pasquale, Steve Backshall, Professor Brian Cox, Connie Booth, Myleene Klass, Sir Lenny Henry and me – can you guess?
We have all, at some point, earned an undergraduate or post graduate qualification with The Open University (alongside a phenomenal 2.2 million other distance learners.)
I didn’t go to university when I was meant to go, back in 1995, fresh from sixth form, with the world at my feet and not a tuition fee in sight. My Dad’s disappointed face when I told him that I wouldn’t be applying still upsets me to this day, although I hope that I have now gone some way to making it up to him.
I look back now and often wonder on the experiences that I missed out on. What would have changed and what would have become of me, if I had ditched the loser boyfriend that I was allowing to hold me back?
Fast forward six years, from my decision not to go, at the age of 24 I had just started my university education with The Open University (OU), as the lone parent of a wonderful two-year-old (the one good thing that the loser boyfriend did leave me with.)
Life was good and me and my girl were plodding along and enjoying life amidst toddler groups, the £10 Sun holidays to Butlins in Bognor and CBeebies being the only channel we ever seemed to watch. I was happy; we were happy enjoying the freedom from the toxic relationship that had been holding us back, but there was something missing. I had the constant feeling of being unfulfilled and needing and wanting more; more money, wanting to pay my own bills and not rely on benefits, wanting to show my daughter that I could look after us both forever and provide stability and security for us no matter where life took us.
I think I had always known that I should have gone to university, that I had something more to do and something more to give.
My first ever knowledge of The OU was as a child in the early 1980s, seeing these strange TV programmes on, either very early in the morning, or very late at night. I distinctly remember that those programmes looked soooooo boring. Men with big beards, kipper ties and mustard brown coloured blazers talking about I don’t know what and scribbling on a free-standing blackboard. I remember asking my Dad ‘What is this telly for?’ and he would reply ‘It’s for people who are learning. They are studying and these programmes are for them, to help them learn.’ Well, they must really have wanted to learn if they were watching these!
The OU has come a l-o-n-g way since then, ditching the out of hours TV tutorials and instead using blogs, vlogs, online interactive learning platforms, hubs and apps to allow its students to literally be educated any time, any place and anywhere.
It took me six years of part time study to gain my degree and at times it seemed to take forever. Module after module of research, assignments, deadlines and exams. I found that I could indeed study anywhere and would capitalise on dead time whenever I could. During the week; soft play, drama club and swimming lessons for my daughter, would mean precious extra study time for me. Even on one of our infamous Butlins breaks, when the Tweenies were showing a riot of four-year-olds how do the hokey-cokey, I was able to sit with highlighter in hand and get on with my studies. I would go to my job as a dinner lady straight from the morning school run to get extra study hours in. I swapped out evenings on the sofa in front of America’s Next Top Model (Sorry, Tyra) for the kitchen table, often working late into the night to get my work done.
I did miss deadlines and I had to ask for extensions. Life carried on as normal with its up and downs and there were times when I thought that the effort was too much and that my life would have been easier if I hadn’t started studying again. I cried late at night when I wanted to get back to the sofa and TV and just relax. Guilt is something that every parent feels, and I was no different. I felt guilty if I was studying and guilty if I wasn’t.
With hindsight the six years did pass relatively quickly, which is always the way when you reflect.
My parents were amazing and swooped in often to allow me time to type up in peace and not worry about juggling entertaining a small child at the same time. Dad would drive me to my day school sessions, and exams that were often an hour or more away, park up and send me off with a coffee and a ‘You can do it, darling,’ and greet me hours later with a ‘Well done,’ and a bun or a hot sausage roll. Part of me was always motivated to succeed for my Dad and not just for myself – to make up for disappointing him. Those times with my Dad were a precious and unexpected by-product of studying and times that I am eternally grateful for.
To say that furthering my education transformed my life would be the biggest understatement. Aside from broadening my mind, horizons and life opportunities, it truly has made me believe and experience that anything is possible for anybody.
Without sounding too cheesy or clichéd, if you are reading this and feel that in some way you have something else left in you to be, or to give, then please, please, please believe that it is entirely possible. You can absolutely do it. Education and learning know no boundaries and it does not matter who you are or what your starting point is – it is there for you, for the taking.
Be warned though, ten years after gaining my degree I went back for more and now I am six months away from my post-graduate qualification with plans to continue after this. Once you get that pull you just can’t ignore it!
“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you” – B. B. King
I studied with The Open University: http://www.open.ac.uk/
They also have Open Learn which offers free online learning courses about everything to everybody: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/