It was the day of the university open day. I was late. Very late. After navigating the busy roads of a new city, I flung the car into a parking bay, flew out of the drivers side, grabbed the pram out of the boot and with a baby under one arm and an 18 month old toddling behind me, ran through the doors of a glorious fifteenth century building. Out of breath and with two children in tow, I was greeted by a warm and friendly staff member who came out to assist this overwhelmed and very late potential new student. In that moment, I knew that this was the right place for me.
And that, folks, is how my journey as a mature student began. A 26 year old mother of two and feeling a little lost, like I had forgotten myself. I don’t know what made me decide to go back to university, I wish I could say it was some dramatic epiphany but it was just a desire to rediscover myself and start forging some kind of path for myself – which I suppose is an important revelation. I had had a varied work history up until that point. I had worked for two hours in McDonald’s when I was 16, a shoe shop, an abseiling instructor, a supervisory role at a log cabin holiday site before falling into a job as a trainee dental nurse which I stayed in until I started maternity leave with my first child. I fell pregnant again when my eldest was just nine months old and a difficult pregnancy followed by a premature baby prevented me from returning to work straight away. A long period as a ‘stay-at-home parent’ gave me a lot of time to really think about my life and what it was I wanted to do with it.
It was actually when I was giving birth to my second child, that I had an inkling about what I wanted to do. Giving birth in a very clinical setting, hooked up to drips and machines and having a baby whisked away into an incubator really removed any potential to birth in a natural way and it really made me realise how much I wanted to learn more about our evolutionary story. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to follow a scientific path. I am and always have been, passionate about animals and conscious about the human impact on the natural world. I always thought how incredible it would be to spend a lifetime making a difference. I did not think it would be possible for me to enter a scientific pathway as I had always pursued ‘the arts’ in school- my side passion is for music and theatre and I still dream of being on the stage (only now as a science communicator rather than a West End star. Okay maybe a singing science communicator). As a child I would spend a lot of time wandering up and down the common behind our house collecting Victorian medicine bottles that were uncovered every time there was a large rainfall, pieces of pottery and rocks (that I would of course stick googly eyes on, everyone had pet rocks – didn’t they?). I had a lifelong interest in archaeology, I knew it would be an interesting degree to study but I knew it wouldn’t be the career I wanted to do long term. What I didn’t know is the doors that an archaeology degree would open for me.
So fast forward to January 2019, I was one term into my archaeology degree and having a brilliant time. The university had a great community of mature students and support for student parents and through that community I met some fellow students who understood the challenges of studying with young children. I was learning a lot, having fun and absolutely feeling I had made the right decision. But I still wasn’t sure exactly where my career would take me. An email dropped into my inbox – “Laidlaw Scholarship applications now open” – I clicked on it and read it. An opportunity for first year students to undertake two summers of paid research in an area of choice and while you’re at it, study for a leadership and management qualification. “Okay”, I thought, “what have I got to lose?”. We were part way through a module on archaeological science so I grabbed the chance and at the end of a lecture, I spoke to the lecturer who was totally willing to take me on as a supervisee and even had a project in mind that would give me the opportunity to gain lab experience and my first introduction to the scientific field. I wrote the proposal, went for an interview and one day, whilst excavating a wet and muddy Roman town in North Yorkshire, I opened my emails and found I had won the scholarship. I won’t talk too much about the scholarship experience, I will write another blog post about that in the future, but I will say that the opportunity gave me such confidence in my abilities and the gumption to just go for it and pursue exactly what it is I want to do. So after a couple of nervous twitter messages and a phone call, I’m now here finishing my third year of my degree and waiting to start a master by research in biological sciences, focusing on the welfare and enrichment of captive chimpanzees. It still doesn’t seem real and I imagine I’ll feel like this for quite some time! But choosing a degree that has given me a huge amount of transferable skills and taking a chance on an opportunity has worked, I’m finally entering a world I never thought I’d be able to.
I suppose the message I want to send through writing this is, don’t ever feel like you can’t pursue your dreams. Even if the road to your goal is long and winding, there is still a chance. My journey is far from complete. I hope to become fully engaged in conservation and animal welfare. My absolute dream is to become a broadcaster and author, communicating important messages about conservation to the public (see, once a performer, always a performer). A few years ago, I would never have believed any of this was possible and yet here I am. So this one goes out to all those people out there, thinking about maybe returning to university, always wanted to do a degree but thought it was too late, it’s not. Begin your journey now, who knows what doors will open for you if you can just create the key to unlock them .