When I applied for the Access to Higher Education course in 2019, I had just moved to the area and I didn’t know anybody. Like many other students, I was a mum. I have five children and I started the course in September with some concerns. Two of my children have special needs: my then 7-year-old has a-typical autism and my then 15-year-old has ODD/ADHD. As the course began to progress, I was getting on well and was starting to figure out how to manage a decent work and life balance. However, in the November of 2019, my eldest child developed a drug addiction and his mental health declined rapidly. We tried to work through this as a family and with the help of other agencies it worked for a few weeks. As we neared January 2020, I was looking forward to starting a placement in a school as part of my course, but at home things were getting worse. My eldest child’s behaviour was getting worse, he was prone to violent outbursts and the whole family was suffering. I needed to admit to myself I couldn’t do this anymore for not only my own health but that of my families too. He went into foster care permanently and I knew it needed to be done but I was overwhelmed by guilt and sadness.
As February came and went, life was looking up. I had my conditional offers for university, and we were all adjusting to our new routine and we felt safe, until March, when the pandemic came along. My husband works as an NHS staff nurse, schools closed and I was at home trying my best to educate four children with their ages ranging from 6 to 14. Balancing everything at home whilst doing my Access to HE course was difficult at times and I was becoming exhausted, but it was a very welcome distraction from everything. I decided that I needed to speak with someone. I shared my concerns with the head of my course, Suzi, who was incredibly helpful and supportive. She listened to me and said some kind words when I needed to hear them most.
It sounds silly but the Access to HE course kept me going through the hardest parts of my life. I made friends and it was so good to talk to other adults. There were times when I cried over assignments because I was stressed, and I just didn’t seem to have enough time to finish them all. However, there were more times when I laughed in class over things that I still giggle about now when I think of them. My Access to HE course gave me the opportunity to escape from reality at home during the first half of it and it gave me confidence and my life back. I wasn’t just ‘mum’ anymore, I was ‘me’ again.
When I received a message from one of my lecturers, Clare, asking if she could nominate me for the Keith Fletcher ‘Outstanding Commitment to Study’ award, I was shocked. To me, there were so many people on the course that deserved it more. I was ‘only a mum’ and everybody gave their all. When I found out I had won the CAVA award, I was amazed because it wasn’t expected at all. To then be told a few months later I had won the national award was just astonishing. Words really cannot describe my reaction. I still believe there was someone more deserving and I was just doing what anyone would do in my shoes.
If you are currently doing or thinking about doing the Access to HE course, do it! Never think you are too old or cannot do it because of any other reason. It will possibly change your life. It is intense and you will need to work hard but it is worth it. Your self-esteem and your confidence will grow, and you will meet some fantastic people on the way. Most of all, you will get where you want to be. My words of advice would be: always try your best; never let anything take away that decision of why you are doing this; and be kind to everybody you meet because you just do not know what they are going through.
Tanya O’Connor studied the CAVA Access to HE Diploma in Education at Petroc College