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Why I Love the Open University
What made me decide to return to further education
When my marriage collapsed in 2005, I needed something to occupy my mind. It is how I cope with emotional stress - fill up your brain with something else and you don't have time to think about what is bothering you.
My younger cousin was away at Uni, living the student life and telling me about some of the amazing things he'd been learning. I began to think that perhaps studying for a degree would be a good way to take my mind off things. After all, having a degree could only improve my prospects.
But I was in my late 20's and I had responsibilities: a full-time job, and a mortgage to pay. I couldn't swan off to a traditional 'bricks and mortar' university and live the student life.
I had heard some good things about the OU from my ex mother-in-law, who had been one of their early students, she told me how you study at home - fitting your learning around your other commitments. Coincidentally, a close friend of mine had just completed her first year with the OU and she told me all about their mini taster courses.
It had been a long time since I'd done any academic studying, and I was nervous about plunging straight into a university degree. So I looked into their taster courses and applied for the course Studying Shakespeare. It run for just a couple of months, studying The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.
Despite being desperately anxious about having to write a couple of assignments, I thoroughly enjoyed the course. But best of all, the marks I received on those two assignments made me realize that I could go for it. By the time that taster course was finished I'd already signed up for my first proper course with the OU beginning the following September.
What is it like studying with the OU?
It is so exciting when you receive your course materials in the post at the beginning of each new course. Opening up that box and examining all the things that you are going to be studying can make you a little bit nervous. The books look intimidating, and you wonder how on earth are you going to get through them all.
But the OU supply you with a calendar to help you plan your studies. It tells you which chapters you should be reading each week, and when to put aside time for writing assignments. It can be difficult at first, trying to keep up with the study schedule, but before you know it your half-way through the books, and they're covered with highlighter pen or post-it notes.
That nervous/excited feeling never goes away, each time you begin a new course you feel those flutters again. But I think that makes it seem so much more rewarding when you get to the end of the course and remember how you felt at the beginning of it.
The Open University has really made the most of modern technology, long gone are the days when students had to post assignments to their tutors for marking and wait weeks for their results. Now there are online forums where you can talk to your tutor, your tutor group or an even wider group of students studying the same course as you all around the world. Assignments are sent electronically via the OU website, and there are lots of other support groups which can be found online - students regularly set up course groups on Facebook.
If online support seems a little distant, the tutors are also available to talk to on the phone (within reason) and there are face to face tutorials where you can meet your tutor and fellow students. I understand that the OU have been experimenting with online tutorials, which are particularly good for those who live too far away to attend a tutorial.
The materials are not limited to printed books, there are CDs and DVDs supplied with the course materials, and as you work your way up to the higher level courses there is research to be done in the online library. The courses are varied, and I have always found them really interesting.
One of my early anxieties was meeting the other students for the first time. I feared that they'd all be really imposing... Imagining myself as a modern day Educating Rita coming from my working class background, thinking they would all see through my poor attempts to join in. In reality I found that my fellow students were always friendly, they come from all walks of life, there are students of all ages, races and backgrounds and we all had one thing in common - the desire to learn.
Some students are there to develop their skills and knowledge for their existing jobs, some people are studying with the intention of having a change of career, some students are pensioners who study to keep their minds sharp. Whatever their reason for studying with the OU the students are all really passionate about the subjects they are learning, and it is really easy to make new friends and set up informal study groups.
I studied English Literature, and so all of my courses came with large reading lists of set texts: some of the books were like bricks. But you learn to read as much of the set texts as you can before the course actually begins... If you can cope with studying just one course a year, you have a lovely summer holiday period between courses in which to read your set texts. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of studying at a leisurely pace. Some students have to overlap courses in order to complete their studies within a set time frame.
But even with the summer break, the workload can be tough. Although you work around your own work and commitments, you still have deadlines to meet. You can often find yourself pulling an all-nighter to get your assignment finished in time. But with the luxury of hindsight, I can honestly tell you it is worth every minute.
What about my other commitments?
Not only did I have a full-time job to fit my studies around, as it turned out, my studies were filled with emotional upheavals:
In the summer of 2006 my Grandfather, whom I idolized, passed away from cancer. Immediately after his death we discovered that my mother had breast cancer, and I juggled studying with hospital visits. As my mum recovered from her mastectomy I began a new relationship, and I began juggling studying with wanting to spend time with the new man in my life. Thankfully he has been really understanding, and knew I needed evenings free to get assignments done.
Juggling your studying is something you become particularly skilled at if you study with the OU. During my 5th full-length course I discovered that I was pregnant, and we needed to move out of our studio flat into somewhere that could accommodate all the extra furniture and toys.
We found a privately rented flat which suited us just fine, and after some long chats with my mum and with an OU administrator I came to the decision to take a year off my studies - my final course began the week of my due date, and I thought that it would just be too much: getting used to the demands of parenthood would be stressful enough, without topping it with the extra demands of my final year at Uni. Luckily it is fairly easy to take a gap year with the Open University.
But just before my son was born my mum found out that her cancer had returned and in the end I took a two year gap, to help care for her. Then our landlord decided that he didn't want to renew the lease as he wanted to live in the flat himself, our financial situation at the time meant we were left homeless and the three of us ended up living in one room in a homeless hostel.
I picked up my studies the month after my mum died - we were still living in one room at the hostel, I had a toddler running around, I had to make daily trips to the launderette as there wasn't a washing machine in the hostel, and amid my grief and daily chores I took to the books. A few months into my final year and we found a new home, so we had another big move.
I'm telling you this so you understand that despite everything I still found time to study... And I graduated with a 2:1 with honors. Yes it is hard work, and if you decide to return to higher education and have commitments at work or at home, things are bound to crop up. There is always going to be an assignment due the same day you have to suddenly work late, or the kids will be on school holidays and disrupt your study schedule. These things happen, and the OU understand that.
My tutors were brilliant, they understand that their students have commitments and life throws things at us, and they helped however they could, whether it was granting an extension for as assignment or emailing me their notes for a tutorial I missed.
I was also supported by my family and friends. They understood when I couldn't go out because I had to stay up all night writing an assignment, they helped by babysitting my son so I could attend tutorials or revise for an exam. My partner was brilliant - he understood when I had to spend the entire evening up in our bedroom studying rather than sitting in front of the television, he put up with my bad days when I felt like screaming, and listened to me giddily chatting about stuff he had absolutely no interest in when I came home energized from tutorials or study groups.
Graduation is the best feeling in the world
Words cannot describe how you feel when you reach the end of your studies. For me it took nine years (including my two year gap) to complete my degree. It wasn't easy... but it was a lot of fun.
After my final exam I felt exhilarated, and went to a local bar with some of my fellow students to discuss the exam paper. Then I went home and began watching some T.V. (something I'd avoided for months during my final year). But then I had to wait for the exam results, and during that wait I had a period of feeling lost, like a huge chunk of my life was missing. Of course, in a way it was. I'd studied practically every day for almost a decade, and had built a network of friends whom I talked to daily online. And suddenly there was no approaching assignment deadline, or exam to revise for, or some quote to decipher.
On the day I received my final exam results and degree classification, I laughed and I cried. It was a mixture of relief, immense pride in myself and such sadness that my mum was no longer around to share in my joy.
But then, on the 28th March 2015 I was finally able to put on my gown and join hundreds of other OU graduates in a beautiful ceremony at London's Barbican Centre. Ceremony's are held all over the UK, and in other countries too. The ceremony is a great occasion, reflecting the OU's unique blend of traditional and contemporary. It is a wonderful opportunity to rejoice in your achievement with your loved ones, knowing all the obstacles you have encountered along the way. Your guests are encouraged to cheer as you make your way across the stage, which enhances the sense of triumph. Every graduate there had overcome personal obstacles during their studies, no matter what subject we had studied we had shared a common experience - which lent a kind of camaraderie to the occasion.
For me, it is a moment I will remember forever.