Back To School

Yesterday, in Ireland, those who have completed their final exams at secondary level (known as the Leaving Certificate – or ‘the Leaving’) received news of whether or not they were being offered their most preferred course at third level. For many, it’s a day of relief, joy, and pride. For others, it’s a disappointment.

I’m not about to launch into the predictable ‘I failed my Leaving and I’m doing grand’ or the ‘Your Leaving doesn’t reflect who you are as a person’ or even the ‘Don’t worry you’ll be grand – you’ll find your way’ spiel that many others are expressing.

And I’m certainly not going to tell young people that it doesn’t matter. Because if it matters to you, then it matters.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about returning to education as an older person. I was 32 when I started my first degree. I was a lone mother, who had escaped abusive marriages, and had two children under the age of four.

I’d done my own leaving at 16 – and studied Drama (which I adored and which still touches on everything I do, including my further thinking around narrative, and the power of our stories). I didn’t have an opportunity to further my education until I was in my thirties, and I was equal parts excited, and trepidatious. Excited becasue I was about to start something new, and have the opportunity to do something I’d never had the chance to do before. Trepidatious because I was terrified I’d fail – that I’d be asked to leave because I simply wasn’t good enough.

I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t uncovered as an imposter. I wasn’t told I had no business being anywhere near the hallowed halls of learning. I wasn’t told that those places weren’t places for the likes of me.

I’m now finishing up my fourth degree – having completed that first honours degree in Psychology and Sociology, an MA, and an LLM – and aim to have a PhD by the end of next year.

Along the way, I’ve learnt a few things, and I’d like to share those things with you now.

First of all, it’s important to note that for women, and especially for women with caring responsibilities, returning to education is hard – but it’s worth it. Learning to protect your time is not easy. Doing something that other people in your household don’t understand is difficult. Being unavailable to people who are used to your availability requires an adjustment on their part – and on yours. That said, few things that are worthwhile are easy. If you are interested in further study, then you really should go and do it.

For women who are not neuro-typical, this is even more difficult (ask me how I know!), but there are supports available at your university that are there to assist you. Contact your student support office, your disability office to find out what is available to you. Register as disabled if you have grounds for it, and avail of every single support you can.

Secondly, education is an end in itself, it’s not just a means to an end. If you want to study something purely for the love of it, then that’s enough reason to do so. There doesn’t need to be a clear, linear, trajectory from your chosen course to job, or a promotion. Studying something because you want to know more about it; because you want to immerse yourself in a subject you’re passionate about; or to prove to yourself that you are capable of undertaking further study, are all valid reasons for choosing to return to education.

Thirdly, education is not just reading books. So much more happens when we return to study than merely the information we glean from between the covers of books, or journals. Education is also training in a specific discipline – reading books on psychology won’t make you a therapist for example. Education is also the conversations we have with other students, and the learning we get from each other – viewpoints that challenge our own, different perspectives that aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but ‘different’.

Fourthly, education brings confidence. My own confidence – in myself, in my thinking, in my opinions, and in my position on various issues – has been enhanced by the fact that I have had the opportunity to learn at third level.

Finally – it’s great fun! Learning is lifelong, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to continue to stretch your mental muscles, to have the opportunity to keep evolving, and to have the chance to reach your full potential. If you’re considering returning to education, find the supports available to you, take full advantage of them, and go for it!