In the beginning…
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I used to watch Time Team with my mum and say “I’m going to do that when I’m older!” We went to museums and places of historical interest, watched documentaries – I even went to see a Time Team dig!
As I worked through school, the plan was to focus on history and take a related subject at some university or another. The desire to go to university was kindled when I attended a taster week at Girton College, Cambridge and fell in love with the possibilities.
Then, at secondary school, I discovered physics. All of a sudden I found myself wanting to study astrophysics or some equally difficult sounding subject. This feeling became stronger when I realised that the schools only wanted to teach me ‘Early Modern history’, something I have next to no interest in.
At Sixth Form, I was split down the middle – Humanities VS Sciences. I took Classical Civilisations, Philosophy, Physics and Maths.
Then disaster struck…
I had been depressed for a long time – I was bullied a lot – and I fell into a deep depression, causing me to fail my AS Levels (and making me hate all the subjects) and drop out of Sixth Form after my first year. They tried to persuade me to stay on and do retakes but I couldn’t see the point. My university dreams went up in smoke.
I did very little for the next year. I worked a bit, and mainly just sat around feeling sorry for myself. Then my mums friends introduced me to musical theatre. They got us tickets to a show they were part of (Monty Python’s Spam-a-lot) and took my family for a tour around the theatre before the show. I’ve always been interested in music – but suddenly a new path opened up for me – I wanted to be an Audio Engineer and work in the theatre.
I found a private college, the SAE institute in London, and signed up for a diploma course. The plan was to complete the diploma within a year, then see how I felt about the degree.
Then disaster struck…again…
After a few months of commuting – ever day – between my home and London I found myself depressed again. I was exhausted, I hated the travel and the noise and the crowds – I hated London in general. I was doing worse and worse in my assessments and I had to leave the school. Once again I found my university dreams, and indeed my life plans in ruins.
I don’t actually remember what I did for the next year or so. It was that kind of misery.
Then came a light in the black…
My mum had done an Open University degree herself and she encouraged me to look into it as a possibility – anything, she said, would be better than sitting around being miserable.
So I looked, and discovered AA100 – The Arts Past and Present. A bit of all the arts subject just called to me – reminded me of my old dreams of History and Archaeology. It wasn’t long before I had signed up.
AA100 was a great course. It was really broad in what it covered – we looked at art, poetry, philosophy, music, history, religious studies…some of it I loved, some of it I wasn’t so keen on (I’m looking at you, Opera). But for the first time in years things were looking up.
Next up, came A200 – Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900. That was a tough course! I don’t think I had ever had to work quite so hard at anything in my life before. Sometimes people say that distance learning isn’t the same as real brick-and-mortar university – and they are right, just for the wrong reasons. People often think distance learning is some how less than in person, but it isn’t. You have to be motivated, and hard working – you have really work at your research, finding your own answers. You have to make get used to getting help and helping others using an online portal rather than face-to-face. It’s hard work, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
At this point my life took a bit of a wild turn. History was not looking like the path for me. I tried to love modern history, but I couldn’t do it – somehow, my mind thought back to AA100 and screamed out “You’re doing a religious studies module!”
This was totally unexpected for me, as (at the time) I was one of those staunch anti-religion folks.
A217 – Introducing Religions blew my mind wide open. I discovered a subject I now have a passion for and a religion I didn’t know I needed (I’m now a practising Buddhist). We studied the “Big 6” of religions in this country – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. I really cannot stress strongly enough how influential this course has been in my life. This course brought back my love of philosophy and shaped the course of the rest of my life.
From this point on, I was all about religion and philosophy. I took A222 – Exploring philosophy, A332 – Why is religion controversial? and A333 – Key questions in philosophy, to finish my course – ending with a BA(Hons) Humanities with Philosophy and Religious Studies. I worked harder than I ever have before and I loved every minute of it.
But that’s not the only thing I loved…
The material I studied over the course of my degree has been amazing. I have loved studying it immensely, but the course content is not the only thing that makes the Open University a truly special institution.
I need to talk about the staff – both tutors and support staff alike.
I’ll start with support staff.
2013 was a time of massive change for me. During the first few months of the year I realised that I am transgender. Transitioning to become ‘Holly’ and live authentically as myself was a monumental task – and this was not made any easier by the response I got from almost every institution I have any contact with.
The government, my doctors, all the people I needed to inform took forever to make the change. I had to fight tooth and nail to get my GP surgery to change my name and title in their system. The DWP still haven’t fixed it in theirs. This caused me a great deal of anxiety and misery for a very long time.
Enter the OU.
I was assigned a specific staff member (whose name, alas, I cannot recall), who was in charge of making all the necessary changes. I had a number of conversations with this person about exactly what my needs where and what I expected the OU to do. She was incredibly friendly and supportive. I said that I needed my name, title and gender marker changed everywhere and she explained exactly what was going to be changed, who would be aware of it and when it would be done by. The whole process was extremely easy. It made an impossible situation infinitely easier.
At no point have I had any trouble from the university about my gender – something I cannot say about any other organisation I’ve been involved with. The whole thing was organised quickly and discretely and I will never stop being thankful for that experience.
But it wasn’t just gender issues. I also have had significant mental health problems during my course of study – issues I still struggle with.
This time I have to praise my tutors – many of whom sometimes received emails explaining that I was circling the depths of misery and devoid of all hope. The response I received from my tutors was overwhelming. Without exception, my tutors provided me with reassurance that I was not alone in this and that support was available. On one occasion I had to defer my study for a while at the suggestion of my tutor. Along with the suggestion, I was reminded that this wasn’t a the end of the world, and that my study could continue when I felt up to it. I was reminded that this wasn’t a failure – it was part of life, and the university was there to support me.
On another occasion, I was greatly stressed, as I had read the content of an upcoming TMA, which involved reading about the value of life. This didn’t feel like a possibility as I was already convinced that life had no value at all, and I din’t want confirmation of this. My tutor went out of his way to make sure that this assignment did not cause me undue stress, offering multiple solutions to the potential problem. I would never, and I mean never have made it through the year, let alone the course, without my tutors support at that most difficult of times.
At the end of my final tutorial of my degree, our tutor took us out to a cafe nearby and we had a long discussion about our plans for the future. It was wonderful to see that even though we didn’t see each other daily, as you might in a brick and mortar university, our tutors still cared about us as students and as people and was really interested in our well-being and our plans.
Then came graduation…
I have written in detail about my graduation day here (Personal: Graduation). It was a wonderful day, that I never thought I would have seen.
The Open University and it’s staff have been a beacon of hope, and a trusted companion in what has been a very difficult, and often hopeless seeming life.
I never really realised until I was sat watching my fellow graduates cross the stage, just how much pride I felt at being a member of this fine institution.
The Open University has supported me through some of the most difficult times in my life. It has provided me with and opportunity to study – which I couldn’t have done at a brick-and-mortar university. It has given me something to belong to, and something to be proud of. It has given me a chance to live a life I genuinely thought was lost to me.
I am a proud Alumnus of the Open University. I will soon, once again, be a proud OU student – I am (hopefully) starting a BSc this year.
The motto of the University is Learn and Live. The Open University has given me a chance to do both, and for that I am forever grateful.