They say ‘better late than never’. That’s what I kept telling myself over and over as I drove over the Woodhead pass on a windy, rainy afternoon last week to attend my Open University graduation ceremony in Manchester – aged 42.
Travelling through driving rain, getting lost, getting delayed, I chastised myself as I drove whether this was all really necessary. Would I stick out as the oldest person getting a degree? Why was I bothering – did I really need to dress up in a fancy gown and silly hat to prove I’d done it?
Actually – yes, I did.
You see, I didn’t do all that well at school. I was never an A student. I did too much daydreaming and hanging out with the bad kids. I didn’t conform well to rules – something I observe in my youngest child all the time.
So, I left school with a handful of mediocre grades, at best, and got a job. To be fair, I did all right. I worked in various office jobs, one of which was where I met my future husband. I liked work much more than I liked school (perhaps it was the pay-check?) But I always felt a little like I could have done more. I could have achieved something else. And my burning desire to be a journalist and a writer never completely went away.
Fast forward to six years ago. Married now, with two daughters and running a successful family business, I still had that voice in my head telling me I was a bit thick. I wanted to see if the voice was right. So I enrolled on an Open University course. English Literature was the obvious choice. I’d get to read books and write about them! I thought I’d give my numbing brain cells a run for their money and see whether they were up to the job. My self-doubt was huge when I sent in that application form. But I got accepted and picked up my pen and paper.
And I’m SO glad I did.
The world quite literally opened up in front of my eyes. I began reading texts I would never have read without the course. And I understood them (mostly!) and I started getting good grades for my essays. I realised I didn’t suck at this.
My very first tutor on the very first course called me in to see him. My knees began their usual knocking and the little voice was back. He was bound to tell me to stop wasting everyone’s time.
But no. The tutor (who was a published poet) looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘I don’t think you have any idea how good your writing ability is, do you?’ Just like that. I almost cried.
And that was just the beginning. My writing ability grew, and my grades grew, and, most importantly of all, so did my self-confidence. I felt comfortable having an intelligent conversation without thinking everyone else in the room was more educated than me. I didn’t hide my voice as much anymore. I started getting questions right on University Challenge! I also felt more confident helping my eldest daughter out with her studies.
I learnt so much in the six years it took to complete the full degree part-time, working around my young family and business. But it didn’t just teach me about English Literature, as I’d thought. I learnt so much more about myself and my capabilities.
If I hadn’t done the degree, I don’t think I’d have taken the plunge of freelance writing. I’m finally fulfilling my dreams of writing, thanks to the Open University.
And that degree ceremony last week? I loved every single minute of it. I basked in the pomp and ceremony of it all. I felt thrilled at being called ‘a graduate’ – whatever my age. The amazing thing was, there were many, many varied graduates there that day. Some were well into their 70’s. They were so inspiring, every single one of them.
As the university chancellor said, that is the wonderful thing about an Open University graduation ceremony: every graduate is totally different, bringing their own life experience and background. It really is open to everyone.
It was also a chance to show my daughters’ that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to, whatever age you are. As my teenage daughter said ‘you are such an inspiration to us to always follow our dreams’. That’s worth its weight in gold.