Reasons to return to education — the life lessons I learned outside class
I chose to dive back in to education and achieve a degree. I left school at a time when arts and engineering graduates were either emigrating or working in petrol stations. I worked with trees and later started my own business. The trouble with running a business is that you are either cash-rich and time-poor, or the opposite.
I first returned to study Ecology, as the banks collapsed. Nobody had any money with which to require my services. Then I started publishing my own books, generating a passive income stream.
I kept looking at the journalism degree advertised in a college where I gained part-time work as an exam invigilator. But now my husband was in a technical college and only one of us could study at a time. Later I gained a qualification in news journalism.
Tree surgeons need an exit plan. The work they enjoy so much at thirty becomes harder as the decades progress. I’ve seen men who worked at trees all their lives, ending up deaf and arthritic.
I knew I needed to prepare ahead of a later phase of my life. I took small steps towards the change I wanted to see.
Enrolling and first year
In 2016 I told my husband that I was interested in a part-time Journalism honours degree. Spreading the cost over four years instead of three would make it viable. Being on staff, I might get a discount. I’d learned that permanent staff could take a course for free. This explained a fast turnover of staff — they gained a free MBA or other qualification, then moved to somewhere larger. Improving my credentials would make me a better writer, help me sell books, and provide credibility. We had to come to terms with the cost. I did not qualify for any grant, being a mature self-employed person, enrolling in a business college which was not state-funded. I attended an open day, presented my qualifications and smiled. I was so nervous at the interview, I could barely hear what was being said to me.
Be Prepared. — Motto of the Girl Guides.
The snag was that I didn’t get a discount. But I was so pleased to have been enrolled that I didn’t press. I turned up two evenings a week to a small class, meeting great people, adapting. I had prepared by getting a new computer and new version of Word. I was only recently a smartphone user but had read enough about platform capitalism and data privacy, to refuse to use social media. I got my eyes tested, bought new glasses, and updated a netbook to bring in to class.
Thinking I might get a discount was an incentive to apply. When I didn’t get it, I didn’t let the setback stop me.
Immediately I noticed that journalism was now all about the internet. Finding the story and interview, writing them up, were not enough. The writing had to be appropriate for a web page. Next, I noticed that my fellow students didn’t use flashdrives. They sent material up to the cloud. We started learning teamwork over Google Drive. During my earlier college course, wi-fi had not arrived, so that college had replaced its library with a room of computers on broadband, but these were taken over for a large part of the day by students spending time on Facebook. After several of us complained, the college admins blocked Facebook, and suddenly we could do our work. In 2017, students carried laptops, tablets and phones that could all use wi-fi. The library contained real books, computers, and study desks.
That first year, a lecturer told us we would be using Facebook later in the course. I said on data privacy grounds I would not. She said I would have to use it. I said, “If you tell me I will fail my degree unless I use Facebook, I will use it. There is no other way I will use Facebook.”
At one point I recall going home thinking about all the new tech I used and how hard it was. Then I said, “It’s not too hard! It’s going well! What’s hard is changing the way you have always done things.” I started reading about neuroplasticity and how our brains literally stick in a rut, a path physically burnt into the fat by constant firing of the same neurons. People who impose daily physical rituals on others — like army or religious trainers — know that a habit takes time to make and is hard to break. In other words, the longer you’ve done something, or thought some way, the harder it is to change.
I was nervous about sitting my first exam in years. Web development had been a new subject to me, and no matter how much I learned, there was more. Nerves helped me study and once the exam started, I was in the zone, not lifting my head for the whole two hours except to check the clock. I also thoroughly enjoyed building my first website. I could do this.
Moving to full-time study
I wasn’t given a choice about moving to the full-time course. Well, I was, but the choice was to ditch my commenced degree with all the first-year grades, or to move up to full-time. The college discontinued journalism enrolments and closed the part-time course. While I could understand the reasoning, this seemed like another major change for me. My fellow students prioritised their day jobs, but I was self-employed.
Edison said that most people don’t recognise opportunity, because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.
I had to enter advanced modules for which I had not yet been taught the basics, and use Apple computers, which the full-timers had used in previous modules, but I had not. Some parts of second year, let me tell you, were tough. But because I had worked hard initially, and achieved good grades, I knew I could do this. Some students had remarked that they only aimed to pass the first year, as those marks were not counted towards the final grading. But to me, that attitude made no sense.
My hard work gave me confidence and a reason to stay the course when circumstances changed. Also, because I had fulfilled all parts of my contract, the college had to accommodate me.
I was thrust into a class of twenty-one year olds who initially seemed understandably less than delighted about learning alongside someone from the prior generation. They turned out, of course, to be fantastic people. Just younger. I remember standing outside a classroom waiting for our turn to use Apple computers, and where the mature students had chatted, the younger students each stared at a phone. To fit in, I had to take out my phone and read the news. The others were mainly looking at Facebook. Some looked at it during lectures too. I didn’t get this. They were paying for the classes. I was the only one in all the years who wrote down notes, during every class. Some of my cohort also didn’t attend many classes. I was the only one with a hundred percent attendance.
The full-time students enjoyed a great deal more participation in college activities. I joined the Journalism Society and quietly supported the leader, who arranged a tour of the national broadcaster’s TV studios.
Be a good example. My mother completed a BA and MA as a mature student. I’m providing young people with a similar example.
Edison said that most people don’t recognise opportunity, because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work. I also applied the Girl Guide motto, Be Prepared. Every scrap of preparation was worthwhile, through all four years, including the summers.
I ended up creating my thesis and taking some other modules in a fourth year after the rest of my class had graduated, due to the staggered way I had to fit in the remaining modules. My final year was online during Covid, which was tough for everyone.
Seize your opportunity, even if you can’t quite afford it or don’t quite feel ready. If I had waited a year longer, that would have been too late. I was the last journalist. Even the opportunity to tour the TV studios did not exist during the pandemic.
Simply because I was mature, people seemed to expect me to write a standard thesis. This would have taken me two weeks and bored me solid. I reckoned that from a multimedia degree, I should create a multimedia thesis project. I built a website of environmental journalism, combining web development, blogging, news writing, feature writing, interviews, science papers, hyperlinks, photojournalism, podcasting, and film production. Once my lecturers and supervisor got their heads around my puzzling choice, they were supportive. I had to keep learning over Zoom, and buy equipment, including an upgraded phone and a highly powered computer, because I was not allowed to access college equipment.
Nobody prior to me had ever built a website for a thesis project, although it was one of the options.
That was how I spent my lockdown year. I also took up the reins of the Journalism Society, and our blog won a National Student Media Award. Nobody told me the awards were available. I searched online for an opportunity and found one. I volunteered for another post, to give me a peer group and social activity. I’ve made new friends during these years. I’ve helped others and been helped by them.
Mentor others, and be mentored. If they teach you, they are growing. Pass on help; that’s its purpose.
And stick to your guns. The General Data Protection Regulation was laid down by the EU during 2016. While my college encouraged students to use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because this provided free publicity, GDPR meant that once I stated my refusal was due to data privacy concerns, a workaround had to be found. I looked at those media in class without joining the sites. I used LinkedIn, Goodreads, Medium and YouTube — which were quite sufficient for the course requirements.
I’ll soon be graduating with a first-class degree and considerable experience. In just a few years I’ve gone from a narrow field, to being versatile, agile, valuable, award-winning in new fields. The environment and sustainability are potentially the world’s greatest priorities, and people need to be informed by media workers who understand the issues. To my creative writing career, I’m adding value such as better photography and better knowledge of web techniques, Search Engine Optimisation and web analytics; I’ve made book trailers and podcasts. I’m future-proofed.
An acquaintance said jokingly, “Do you feel you’re better than us?” and I said, “I don’t feel I’m better than anyone. But I do feel more self-confident.” My family and friends are proud of me.
If you gained a degree ten years ago, the facts you learned may have changed; while the equipment and programmes used, methods of teaching, and presenting assignments, will certainly have changed. That part-time job I had invigilating exams, evaporated due to Covid restrictions. The computers now have that job. I recommend going back to college regularly, or otherwise learning a new skill outside your current skillset, which you will enjoy, and which will prepare you for your future.
Here’s a summary of what I learned.
· Look for opportunities, and take them.
· Be prepared. If you’re not prepared, you can’t take the opportunity at once, or you can’t make the most of it.
· Don your overalls and do the work.
· Be a good example.
· Look like you fit in.
· Accept help, and pass on help.
· Volunteer and have fun.
· Stick to your principles.
· Try something nobody has ever done before you.
· Accept that life is changing — faster than ever.
· Try to gain a job that the computers can’t take.
· Future-proof your skills.
· Be proud of yourself.