Educating Rachel


In 1999, I had just turned 30, and was walking through the sitting room with a wet, be-towelled toddler from the bathroom one evening, when I caught the end of Watchdog on TV. They closed the programme with a mention of ‘double u, double u, double u, dot something,’ and ‘email us at something dot com.’ It sounded like gibberish. I didn’t understand. All I knew was that it was something to do with computers. I didn’t like not knowing what they were talking about. I’ve always hated that feeling and still look word meanings up in dictionaries when no one is looking.

When I was at secondary school in the eighties, if you were any good at French you did German. If you didn’t seem to be a natural linguist, you did computer studies. I did German, ensuring that I got to the grand old age of thirty not being computer-literate.

I’m not quite sure how it happened but I managed to get online and find The Open University site. I applied for a technology course called You, Your Computer and The Net. It began in February 2000. I surprised myself by absolutely loving it, passing it, and finding that computers were actually quite fabulous, bloody handy to know how to use and that learning stuff was fun too. Not to mention all the fun people I met in cyberspace – many of whom I’m still in touch with now. I’d got the OU bug and at the end of it, I signed up for another course: An Introduction to the Social Sciences: Understanding social change. I absolutely loved that one too! I started going around saying things like, ‘Oh, you mustn’t judge people. You don’t know why they said or did that. You should be more open-minded. There are different ways of looking at things, you know.’

Then things went a bit belly up. One of the Social Science lecturers asked me what I was going to study next and I said I had no idea. She said she thought I should do one of the English or Lit courses. I said I didn’t think I wanted to (I was still having nightmares about A level English) and tried maths, then e-business, web design and web applications instead. What a disaster! I dropped out of all of them (which would cost thousands of pounds today, now that course fees have gone up).

In 2004, two years after thinking I’d given up studying and it wasn’t for me after all, I enrolled in a little Arts introductory course called Living Arts. I missed the way learning stuff made me feel: as if I was constantly moving forward, evolving and looking at things in a more profound way. Every part of life is more interesting and exciting when you know more about it. I even discovered that poetry isn’t that scary! We also found out that year that we were expecting our third child. I wrote and submitted my final assignment, while in labour with baby number three, in January 2005, and she was born at home later that night. Thanks to the OU online social areas, I came across lots of wise mums and mums-to-be and learned a lot more about pregnancy, birth, and new babies than I ever had with the first two children. I had the best easiest birth ever and coped with feeding and the knackering first few weeks so much better because of the wonders of sharing information online. And thanks to the whole experience of learning communities generally, I had matured into a new way of thinking that included the realisation that there is no right or wrong way of doing things and ‘we should always be very cautious about social norms.’ *does a little curtsey in case any social science professors are reading this*

I completely committed myself to being a mum, family person, cleaner, washerwoman and supporter of my husband’s business from then on, and may have continued to do so if my father hadn’t become seriously ill three years later. The next eight to nine months were completely about him and when he died in January 2009, I was a wreck. I tried to carry on as normal but within two months I knew I would never be the same again. All the things I had taken for granted centred around family and now it was in pieces. I’d lost my oomph, my pzazz, my sparkle, I lost the freedom to be lighthearted and whimsical. Life seemed suddenly short and meaningless. My sense of humour seemed to become more childish and slightly crazy. It’s a very cloudy time for me memory-wise and I don’t know how it happened but I found myself signed up to study not one, not two, not three, not four, but five courses in 2009! (Admittedly some were only short courses). You see I’d been really busy and pushed myself constantly when Dad was ill and then it all ended so suddenly that I felt I was floating pointlessly back into a life of housework, repetitiveness, and just doing things for other people so they could mess them up again. I didn’t want it anymore and yet I needed to do something challenging.

I began to wonder when the next person would die. Would it be me? What if I never did anything with my life other than housework and then I found out I was dying? It wouldn’t be so bad if I enjoyed it or found it satisfying but I was miserable doing it and had always hated the repetitive thanklessness of it. So without giving myself time to think I signed up for arts and social sciences courses – subjects that had been a success in the past. And – mainly because I could do it at home without any tutorial or exams, I also signed up for Creative Writing. I found that I was able to write without much effort – which was nice. And I could finally talk about what had happened and how I felt through writing words. Together the creative writing course and the social science course – Family Meanings taught me to carry on opening my eyes and looking closely at things. I didn’t realise it at this stage but I was doing exactly what suited me and had amassed quite a few points towards a degree. I now also had a Certificate in Social Sciences and a Certificate of Higher Education, which helped me to stop having so many nightmares about my terrible A levels.

It slowly dawned on me where I had been going wrong all those years: Although very shy and socially awkward I was in fact a social person. A people person. Learning about society and people and where we might be missing the point became more and more interesting to me.
I decided to squeeze a psychology course in alongside Advanced Creative Writing in 2010 (Wow – psychology is so interesting and gives you great story ideas!), and I overlapped a Health and Social Care course with the second half of my writing course (2011). Advanced Creative Writing finished in May and I received my Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing a couple of weeks ago. The Health and Social Care course officially ends on 14 Sept, but I have just submitted my final assignment now. Yes, just now. If I pass that final assignment, I have done enough work to get a degree! It was a tough tough course that final one: Death and Dying – it brought back so many sad memories of my father’s and my father-in-law’s deaths. I’m sure people working in palliative care must be saints, as I have struggled to keep going when reading a lot of the material in the coursebooks. So now it is over and I shall reward myself with something light.

It’s taken eleven years, lots of money, lots of stopping and starting, lots of self-discovery, masses of fun and friendship. The most supportive people have been ones I have met online and recently have made all the difference to my life (whoever tells you that online friends are not real, simply does not know what they are talking about).
I have not been to one single tutorial. Nope, not a one. I have not sat one single exam. Nope, not a one. Due to my social fears, organisational problems, debilitating writer’s cramp from a wrist injury, and general weirdness, I have chosen courses with no exams. All of the courses have ended with examinable assessments submitted from home. I have literally studied for a degree completely from home.

Providing I find out in three months (ish) that the last course was a success I can claim a BA or a BSc. I’ve already decided it will be a BA because I’ve signed up for 20th Century Literature, starting soon, so that I can go on and get a BA Honours!

Talk about doing things the hard way.

So thank you to the OU, for the opportunity to do it my way. But what about continuing to support people like me by keeping courses affordable?! I’m really saddened to think it may no longer be that lifeline that so many people have relied on for years.

And thank you to Miss Sarah Fullard, who I met online on that first course in 2000 and who eventually became not only an OU tutor but Mrs. Sarah Horrigan – after meeting her future husband online on that same course. Sarah, you are fabulously encouraging and I will never forget how one day you said something that changed my view of myself: you said one of the only things I didn’t know was how clever I was. (Getting a bit emotional now). Little things like that that adjust our faith in ourself make a big difference.
And massive thanks to the people who have encouraged me in my writing this year and said amazingly supportive things that have given me an enormous boost. I really didn’t know I had it in me.

Completed:
* T171 You, your computer and the net (2000)
* DD100 An introduction to the social sciences: understanding social change (2001)
* Y152 Living arts (2004)
* D270 Family meanings (2009)
* A172 Start writing essays (2009)
* A177 Shakespeare: an introduction (2009)
* AA100 The arts past and present (2009)
* A215 Creative writing (2009)
* DSE232 Applying psychology (2010)
* A363 Advanced creative writing (2010)
* K260 Death and dying (2011)

In progress
* A300 20th century literature: texts and debates (2011)

Ps. And thank you to my husband who hasn’t come storming in, asking me why, if i submitted my assignment 2 hours ago, am I still hiding away in here xxx


46 comments

  1. Huzzah and congratulations!
    I went to Uni straight from school cos that was what was expected of me. I have so much respect and admiration for you, doing it later on and trying to manage a family life too. I couldn’t do it so kudos to you, Rach.
    And as I’ve said before…

    HUZZAH!!!

  2. Blub blub. Well done Rachel. I’m looking forward to studying alongside you again this year. Don’t ever stop writing. Jenny xx (and don’t forget about that mascara you owe me).

  3. Rachel, I don’t know anythng about you other than through your blog and twitter but I feel immensely proud for you. I chuckled at parts of the post as I recognised myself in there. I fell out of love with education-amongst other things- when I was fourteen but since my early twenties have continued learning through a variety of courses (nothing as grand as you have done.) Your last couple of posts about your OU courses have really inspired me, thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. What a brilliant achievement. You are an inspiration, getting so far, and coping with the trials & tribulations of normal life. Do you have any plans for your degree, or are you just going to enjoy having a degree and a sense of achievement? I bet even after your course that will convert your degree to Honours, you will still carry on studying. Well done!

  5. Well done you :-) And I agree about the fees. I signed up for my studying with a small baby in tow on the day that I actually got upset at missing an episode of Neighbours – that gave me the kick to realise that I needed to do something a little more constructive with my time! I had no idea what I wanted to study or where it would go, and didn’t even really expect to be able to finish that first course. But somehow I did, and I’m now about to start my first year as a fully qualified teacher with a permanent contract. And I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it if the course fees were anything like they are now, because I wasn’t doing it to get a degree because I didn’t think that people like me could get a degree – that’s what the OU changed for me, and it’s really sad that that aspect is what will disappear :-(

    • Thanks, Amanda. Yes, it’s very sad, because like you, I thought I couldn’t get a degree. Being able to work at home at your own pace will become a privilege of the few if we’re not very very careful :/

      • It also means that you have to have some idea of what you’re doing and why before you start. ‘Passing the time’ or ‘exercising my brain’ don’t really justify the outlay of the new fees!

        • So true… I had absolutely no idea. I still think everything I have learnt along the way is far more valuable than a document or a couple of letters.

  6. Huge congratulations on a fantastic achievement!

    I have a degree which I got the traditional way – two and a half years of drinking followed by six months of panic-driven study – but I have also done a couple of OU courses (DD100 and A215) and start Advanced Creative Writing this autumn.

    I know how tough it is to fit study around other commitments but I also know the wonderful feeling you get when you push yourself to grow as a person. I was planning to do an MA with the OU, and maybe even a PhD but the fees increase probably rules both out in the short-term.

    Enjoy everything you have earned and best of luck for your next steps!

  7. Congratulations Rachel. Not only are you talented, hard-working and completely deserving of every success, you’re inspirational.

    Seriously well done xx

  8. Wow! What an inspirational woman! And I notice you neglect to make it clear, over and over again, that you did that while being a mum to all your children! Well done. I look forward to reading about the day you get your degree :) x

  9. You just made me cry, Rach! Congratulations, Mrs C2. You’ll always tingle my toes with happiness when I think how far you’ve come and how far you’re capable of going. xx

  10. I agree with Peter above, its much easier to go from school to uni than being a mature student. Im now in my second year with 110pts under me belt and loving it :)

    11 Years is a long time but nothing like doing what you love :)

    • So true, Chris. Imagine doing it quickly, just for the sake of the degree. I have enjoyed almost every step, and learnt so much. That’s what matters :)

  11. Pingback: Educating Rachel (via A Voice Released) | My Open University Life

  12. Well done you! The Open University experience is life-changing. Watch out for the withdrawal symptoms. If you succumb, your freedom will be short-lived (I speak from experience), so enjoy the break.

  13. Congratulations, Rachel! You certainly deserve your degree. And thank you for sharing your journey with us. You’re an inspiration. I can relate to so many aspects of your story and feel wonderfully encouraged and humbled by it.

    Best wishes and big hugs!

  14. Hello Rachel,
    I studied with the Ou too, finally graduating with a BA (Hons) in literature in 2009. I remember at times almost tearing my hair out as assignment deadlines loomed or exams approached and wondering over and over again why I was putting myself through the stress, but the truth was I loved it and learned so much and would happily do it all again. I would love to do a history degree or even an MA but unfortunately the fees are beyond me. I was terribly lucky as, being on a low income, I got all my fees paid for me. Now I would have to pay the lot and with the fees increasing so much it is an impossible dream. Fair enough, I’ve had my turn and can’t complain, but I do feel very sad for those who would love to study for a degree or any course and just can’t afford to. The OU changes your life and should be accessible to many more people not less. Congratulations on all your achievements and good luck with your results. I so miss the OU. Maybe one day I’ll be able to find my way back to it. I do hope so!

  15. Lovely post, and resonates in so many ways. I haven’t studied at the OU. I didn’t, and still don’t believe I could cope without lectures, tutorials and the ‘actual’ university environment. Although saying that my MA has been a sort of distance learning course, with visits to a University far far away!
    I too lost my father, albeit when I was 13, and consequently mucked up the rest of my schooling. I also have spent the rest of my life feeling like I missed out on something. I love learning & studying, not least for the opportunity to buy stationary it brings! I have found that once one level is achieved the next seems doable and so on, hence my application for a PhD. Good luck and enjoy the 20th C Lit module.

  16. Thank you for this post. Ever since you wrote about it, I’ve been thinking of going back to OU study. I registered for a few courses at the same time as A215, and then I had some personal problems and withdrew from courses. Because of this, the OU wouldn’t let me register on anymore courses.Just after you wrote this post, I spoke to them about it, and they sent the form through for me to request extenuating circumstances and be allowed to study again. On Friday, I finally decided to fill in the form – it was a big thing to do, and I’ve finally done it.

    I had a phone call this morning – they’ve accepted my form, and the block has been lifted. I can study again. I’ve been thinking about starting my own business for a while, but I feel out of my depth, and decided that maybe I should go back to OU study. You’ve inspired me to do that, and I’ve registered on a Level 1 Psychology course starting next month. It almost feels like a weight has been lifted. I’m determined to succeed this time. At the moment, the courses are counting towards BA Hons Childhood and Youth Studies and BA/BSc Hons Combined Social Sciences (haven’t decided exactly which one yet….depends where future courses take me).

    But thank you, for being an inspiration, and for helping me get my life back on track.

    • Oh Vickie, you’ve just brought tears to my eyes. That’s really good news and I hope so much that things go better for you this time. You just have to keep reminding yourself that you can do it and any time anything seems unmanageable get in touch with you tutor straight away.
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and giving me a much needed lift. Rxxx :)


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