On Saturday 27th October 2012, at least twenty years older than the average brick university graduate, I attended my degree ceremony in Portsmouth (Just). It was one of those rare, gloriously sunny days that have been in such short supply this year – but incredibly chilly and windy too. We left the house half an hour later than intended and took an hour and a half longer than we intended to get there. My one hour contingency plan was well and truly out of the window, we arrived flustered and distraught, we missed lunch and very nearly missed the photographer. I left the camera in the car in my hurry to get to the Guildhall. My best and oldest of all my OU friends was supposed to be there but had to cancel at the last minute and I really missed her. But I got there. My six guests got there and I graduated with a massive grin on my face.
This is how I explained my feelings about the day in an email to a friend later:
The graduation itself was nice and moving, and kind of weird – lonely almost. But not a bad lonely. It’s difficult to explain. I suppose it was because we sat with other students and away from our guests for the ceremony – and with the OU that means sitting with strangers. And we’re all adults and not just starting out in life – so many of us have to be proud of ourselves whilst also being someone’s parent. I almost felt selfish!
It’s when I was sitting there surrounded by strangers wondering where my guests were sitting that I realised it was me and only me who had got my degree and I’d done it all by myself, and only for me, and only I knew how it felt. I was charged with mixed emotions, and obviously missed my dad (who died in 2009). Some of the pomp made me well up with a combination of tears and laughter at the pageantry. The ceremonies at these things are a bit daft, aren’t they? I held a plastic fake degree certificate for the photo and was presented with a card at the ceremony because our certificates were sent through the post. So in a way it was all just pretend!
But it was the ceremonial icing on that big cake of a degree. Without it it would have been like having a birthday without a party, Christmas without school plays, like landing on the moon without plonking a flag into the ground.
It says, “I got there. I did it. Look.”
This is the point at which most people congratulated me on my achievement of gaining a BA honours.
I love the look on people’s faces when they ask what the degree is in and I say it’s an open degree and actually I could have a BSc because I studied lots of ‘ologies as well as arts and humanities. Studying with the OU is a unique experience where one can choose a specific named degree course or explore lots of different subjects.
But what they didn’t congratulate me on was the courage it took me to sign up for my very first module in 2000, when all through my life formal education had been a fairly unhappy experience, and I seriously doubted myself and my abilities to cope in many ways.
And they didn’t congratulate me on managing to find 13 modules to suit my interests that had no exams to sit in a public place – so I could see them through to the end without panicking.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to pass 13 modules without attending a single tutorial or meeting a single tutor either.
Nor did they congratulate me on managing to learn to interact socially online and make new, life-long friends.
They didn’t congratulate me on using my educational and online social experiences to improve the way I approach my thinking about life and society.
They didn’t congratulate me on my bloody-mindedness when self-esteem hit an all time low, and I had to fight to not let fear pull me out of something yet again.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to find time to study when I got weeks and weeks behind because the rest of adult/family life had taken priority.
What a lot of non-OU-students probably don’t grasp is that however important it is to us, for mature students with a family, study usually comes last. It’s often finding the time, motivation and the staying power that’s the difficult bit.
They didn’t realise that learning stuff was the easy bit. In comparison.
They didn’t congratulate me on battling against an onslaught of recurring unexplained physical and mental symptoms – such as headaches, exhaustion and brain fog – that regularly left me unable to function.
They didn’t congratulate me on simply getting dressed on the day of the ceremony.
People who know me congratulated me on managing to attend the ceremony and getting through the 24 hours prior to the ceremony. That was one magnificent achievement, only made possible by a swift prescription of beta blockers the day before.
You see it’s just become official that I have anxiety – and have probably had it for 40 years. The GP used the word “anxiety” in a sentence when talking about me, passing me a leaflet, and discussing therapy yesterday so I know it’s true. It was thanks to my degree ceremony that I made the call and began to start accepting help.
All my life I have let fear stop me from doing things because of the immense physical relief I gain when I back out of things. Life has taught me that not doing things is better. Facing your fears is not good; it hurts and doesn’t come with reward. It became clear to me in my late teens that it was easier to not turn up for A level lessons, it would be easier not to plan to go to university, not to have too many commitments. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted coping with a room full of people for any length of time, and can’t concentrate for long, so what would be the point anyway?
The Open University’s unique “openness” answered all of my problems: study in my own time, at my own pace, no lessons, no social commitments, no compulsory tutorials, a choice of online modules with no exam, tutors who can be emailed, online social areas.
It’s been awesome and I’ve been on the OU website 3 times this week drooling over all the subjects I’m still interested in or think might be useful.
I will really miss the OU – it’s been my lifeline. But I simply can’t afford it anymore.
I got there. I did it. Look.