Source: Karen Burns

How many of us have felt that we could achieve more or have wanted to change careers? Maybe our lives didn’t allow us to reach our goals at a younger age, or we were not afforded an opportunity to study to the level we wanted to.

Well, it really is never too late!

Life can throw us curveballs; circumstances can often get in the way of our educational journeys. This was my experience – finding my educational journey cut short and my dreams quashed.

Family issues

At 18, I was midway through my A-levels when family issues caused me a great deal of emotional distress. Although I had been doing well, my grades dropped and I made the decision to quit sixth-form studies.

Shortly afterwards, an unplanned pregnancy plunged me into motherhood at an early age. Family life took over and my studying days seemed to be far behind me – or so I thought. But years later, after I had my third child, I saw something on Facebook which reignited the dream.

The Gateway Scheme

I was browsing my Facebook one day when I spotted an advertisement for the ‘Gateway Scheme’, targeted at getting people back into education. The scheme didn’t require applicants to have A-levels and was a fast-track way to get into university.

It was a 12-week intensive course, delivered over a series of two-hour blocks during which we learnt:

  • study skills;
  • referencing;
  • where to find books in the library;
  • presentation skills;
  • the do’s and don’t’s of essay writing; and
  • a variety of general social studies concepts.

Upon completion of the 12-week course, we had to submit two assignments – an essay and a presentation. Gaining the equivalent of a high 2:1 (over 65%) would allow us to be accepted onto the full-time Social studies degree course. A grade of 55% -64% would allow for a part-time place on the degree course. Thankfully, I achieved over the 65% benchmark and was accepted into the full-time BA Social Studies degree course (through the Centre for Lifelong Learning).

My experience of being a mature student

Getting into university in my 40s was surreal.

I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever get to study at Warwick University. It had been one of the two universities that I had visited back in 1990 when I had been studying for A-levels.

Yet I had told myself, at the tender age of 18, that I was not good enough.

As I wasn’t an A-grade student back then, I thought that a Russell Group university was way out of my reach. But here I was, years later, off on my journey with Warwick University. It was nerve-wracking and after my 1st year, I got cold feet and withdrew from the course.

However, after a 2-year hiatus, I returned in 2019 to finish what I had started. I studied a mixture of modules on race, gender, social policy, and crime, having decided to major in Sociology. All was going well until March 2020 when…

Along came a pandemic

The arrival of the pandemic and the lockdowns meant that my course went from being an in-person course to an online one – with very short notice. It changed the dynamics of the learning experience and presented additional challenges to overcome.

I found myself having to work around a young daughter, due to the schools being off-limits to most children, as well as having my husband and grown-up sons at home. My study space was no longer the quiet zone I once had. Instead, I had a noisy dog and 4 other people to contend with.

I was also expected to home-school my daughter.

Other challenges were that the university library was shut (for much of the pandemic) and I was largely restricted to the books that had been digitalised by the university, or else I had to buy those that were not. I also couldn’t access archives personally and was forced to use digital archive material, which would have been a fraction of the archive collection.

The biggest downside was the change in dynamics. It really wasn’t the same only seeing my fellow students online, via Teams meetings or emails. However, we did our best to keep up active lines of communication and to form friendships, despite our distance from each other.

I even joined a student extra-curriculum group – a gothic reading group, which then somehow morphed into a feminist reading group (I am not sure how that happened).

Despite the challenges the last 18 months of my degree threw at me, I somehow got to the end.

Achieving a 2:1 and graduating

It was really the greatest feeling when I got my final grade and realised that I had achieved my goal. At the grand age of 49, I graduated with a 2:1, at Warwick University. All my hard work had paid off, and all the stress had been worth it.

Yet, it did kind of feel like a firework with no bang. I didn’t get to have my big day in a graduation gown until a year later. I also wasn’t able to celebrate with those who had shared my journey with me. It really was quite sad.

Family and friends were immensely proud of me though, and Warwick made us feel extremely special when we did get to have our graduation day in 2021.

My lasting memories of being a mature student

I will always have fond memories of my time as a mature student, despite the challenges due to the pandemic. The people I met, the knowledge I gained, and the skills I obtained will stay with me forever.

I also learnt a lot about myself whilst on my degree journey. I discovered that I have great organisational skills, real resilience, and a determination that keeps me going (even in difficult times).

Above all, I learnt that I should never put myself down.

That 18-year-old girl had grown up and had achieved what she had once deemed impossible, showing that nothing is impossible and that it really is never too late to return to education. When the time is right, then everything can work out grandly.

This is not the end of my educational journey, for there is much more that I can learn now that I have renewed my thirst for knowledge.

If you have always thought you could achieve more but were scared that you had left it too late, my advice is to take the plunge and find a path that suits you.

Because you really never know what you are capable of until you try.

Published by Karen Burns

A 50-year-old mother of 3. Graduated from Warwick University in 2021 (with a degree in Social Studies). I have chronic illness, which affects my mobility. However, I love writing and I am a prolific writer of poetry as well.


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