In the UK there is an intense amount of pressure on teenagers as they choose their GCSE and A level subjects. I remember being entirely overwhelmed by the constant dialogue surrounding UCAS applications and university choices, the sheer weight placed upon these decisions, and the ingrained idea that the success of your life is based on this singular decision. But what if we don’t play by those rules?
Let me start off by clarifying that it is great if you are confident that you know what you want to do with your life when you are 16-18 years old. If you have a plan all worked out and are sticking to it, more power to you! You have things more figured out than most. But what happens when those plans fall through, or you hit a sudden roadblock?
An unexpected illness or pregnancy? Changes in financial circumstances or responsibilities? The truth is, life is unpredictable and when our plans are affected by factors outside our control, it can feel devastating and hopeless. Particularly when we so often aren’t aware of alternative paths.
I myself took a slightly alternative path to gain my undergraduate degree due to unforeseen circumstances relating to my own mental health. I ended up studying at The Open University which allowed me to connect to many people who had taken different paths in life with wildly different circumstances, and yet we all ended up in the same place, at the same time, studying the same thing. One of those people was Josephine who sat down with me (remotely) to talk about her experience as a mature student.
As a little girl, Josephine wanted nothing more than to be a nurse when she grew up. Her mother was a nurse, and her grandmother had been a nurse before her. She dreamed of emulating the women in her life that she idolised and would spend her playtimes bandaging her teddy bears and dolls, making sure they were well looked after and rehabilitated before they could be discharged back to their rightful place atop her pillow.
A smile adorns her mouth as she recalls the time her mother caught her playing with her expensive stethoscope. The only thing that alleviated her mother’s frustration was Josephine’s innocent clarification that she really needed it to see if her dolly had a chest infection.
So, what happened? How did young Josephine, so set on what she wanted to be, end up on a completely different path? “Love. Or more accurately, botched love.” She says. When she was still in secondary school Josephine met and fell in love with the person she thought was her soul mate.
“He was the new kid, he’d moved from a different town, and he was mysterious, arty, and somewhat rebellious. I had no hope against his charms”
She goes on to describe a love story worthy of an animated Disney film. By the time Josephine was looking to attend nursing college she was engaged to the love of her life, and it seemed as though she was living a charmed life. She was accepted into the training programme and had moved in with her fiancé, but at the end of her second semester things would change dramatically.
“I found out I was pregnant the same day that I found out that I had aced my first exam, I didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, I was over the moon that I was having a baby with the man I wanted to marry. But I knew what it meant for my dream of being a nurse”
Josephine’s first pregnancy was deemed to be high risk and almost instantly pulled the plug on her studies, but she had a fiancé who convinced her that she would be able to resume them after having the baby. “After our first son was born, I didn’t mind delaying my studies. I was in a blissful state, spending all my time with my baby, My fiancé holding down a job that covered all our expenses. It was a different life, but a wonderful one”.
Josephine says as she shows me photos from that time. Blissful was the perfect word to describe the woman in the photographs, in every single one she was smiling at her baby, cradling him, tending to him. It was maybe this incredible amount of love she had for her baby that ended up cementing her life as a mother instead of a nurse. In the next three years, babies’ number two and three came along in quick succession.
“When people say that babies never fix a relationship, they’re right. I once read the phrase ‘when the foundations of your house are rotten, you don’t paint your living room. My fiancé was working more and more hours so that I could stay at home with the children. Neither of us wanted this arrangement anymore but couldn’t see a way out. We would simply fight all the time instead”. The relationship eventually broke down and Josephine was left with three young children to look after and the distant dreams she was once so close to.
So, what changed? “I was watching telly one night, drinking wine out of a children’s cup when an advert caught my eye. It was for The Open University (OU), and the line that stood out to me was that there was no need for recent A level grades”. She tells me how she spent hours scrolling through the courses offered by the OU (of which there are many!), eventually settling on a forensic psychology BSc. When I asked her, what made her pivot from nursing to forensic psychology? Her answer felt somewhat profound.
“When I was young I wanted nothing more than to look after people every day. After raising three children alone, I could no longer stomach the thought of looking after people 24/7. Maybe that makes me an awful parent? It would certainly make me an awful nurse now! With psychology I could still help people, I just wouldn’t be looking after them. I also had a life-long true crime passion. It felt like the perfect fit”. This answer perfectly sums up the major issue with our attitude towards acceptable education paths in the UK.
Had Josephine studied to become a nurse through university, then had her children, she may well have ended up feeling the same way about the job. But her access to The Open University would be thwarted by ineligibility for student loans. The fact is, a lot of us don’t know what we’ll want to do with the rest of our lives because we don’t know what our lives hold for us, professionally or personally.
The opportunity the OU offered was great, but what was the experience of completing a degree as a mature student really like? “I was nervous about starting. I had images of being surrounded by young people fresh out of sixth-form. I was worried I would feel old, and like I was wasting my time. In the weeks leading up to the first in-person tutorial my brain really did a number on my self-esteem”.
Josephine recalls pacing back and forth between her car and the college entrance on the day and contemplating throwing the towel. “I was convinced by a text from my eldest which read: Good luck mum! You’ve got this! Xxx. I realised that I had an amazing support system behind me, that there really is no age limit on learning. My least favourite phrase is ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, Of course, you can, the dog just has to be willing.”
The course Josephine enrolled on took six years to complete due to its part-time nature. During this time, she had regular assignments, exams, tutorials, and independent study to complete. All the while she was still raising three children single-handed, helping them with their homework, taking them to extracurriculars, holding down a part-time job to help pay the bills.
So, what was the experience like? “I was exhausted. I averaged four hours sleep a night in the first year before I found a better balance with work and family. Joining the social media pages for the course I was on helped me to connect with other students on my course and really helped to keep motivation up.
I was worried that distance learning would be isolating but there are so many resources now to connect people it was great. We would meet up in groups that lived locally to one another and arrange study sessions. I was amazed by the number of women the same age as me also studying for the first time or changing their career altogether.”
We discuss the incredible tangents that we would go on during study sessions and agree that one of the best things about institutions such as the OU is the presence of students of all ages, from all backgrounds, with completely different experiences. “The ability to understand concepts and subjects from the point of view of others is integral to being a great psychologist. I also strongly believe that it is a skill that can only provide value to any area of study or work. I don’t think you can truly gain that benefit from institutions without mature students.”
Josephine graduated from the OU in 2020 with a First-Class Honours degree. She didn’t graduate because of the pandemic, but her children surprised her with her framed degree after intercepting it from the postman. “I cried when they gave it to me. They are ultimately why I did the degree. Not just to teach them that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, but to also make sure I was the happiest version of myself for them, so that I could provide for them properly.”
The one piece of advice that Josephine would give to other people who are putting off starting a degree through fear of having left it too late, or concern about the realities of being a mature student is this: “It’s never too late to just do it. It won’t be a walk in the park, but the feeling of achievement and pride you feel when you have completed it is incredible! It is so important to ensure that you connect with other students, especially if you are distance learning. You will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of people in the same boat as you. Whatever field of study you choose, know that you will be an asset, your age simply equates to increased life experience and no amount of schooling can teach you that.”