Thank y’OU!

The only chance I was ever going to get of gaining a degree and some sort of belief in my own intelligence was through the Open University.

On Saturday 27th October 2012, at least twenty years older than the average brick university graduate, I attended my degree ceremony in Portsmouth (Just). It was one of those rare, gloriously sunny days that have been in such short supply this year – but incredibly chilly and windy too. We left the house half an hour later than intended and took an hour and a half longer than we intended to get there. My one hour contingency plan was well and truly out of the window, we arrived flustered and distraught, we missed lunch and very nearly missed the photographer. I left the camera in the car in my hurry to get to the Guildhall. My best and oldest of all my OU friends was supposed to be there but had to cancel at the last minute and I really missed her. But I got there. My six guests got there and I graduated with a massive grin on my face.

This is how I explained my feelings about the day in an email to a friend later:

The graduation itself was nice and moving, and kind of weird – lonely almost. But not a bad lonely. It’s difficult to explain. I suppose it was because we sat with other students and away from our guests for the ceremony – and with the OU that means sitting with strangers. And we’re all adults and not just starting out in life – so many of us have to be proud of ourselves whilst also being someone’s parent. I almost felt selfish!
It’s when I was sitting there surrounded by strangers wondering where my guests were sitting that I realised it was me and only me who had got my degree and I’d done it all by myself, and only for me, and only I knew how it felt. I was charged with mixed emotions, and obviously missed my dad (who died in 2009). Some of the pomp made me well up with a combination of tears and laughter at the pageantry. The ceremonies at these things are a bit daft, aren’t they? I held a plastic fake degree certificate for the photo and was presented with a card at the ceremony because our certificates were sent through the post. So in a way it was all just pretend! 😉

But it was the ceremonial icing on that big cake of a degree. Without it it would have been like having a birthday without a party, Christmas without school plays, like landing on the moon without plonking a flag into the ground.
It says, “I got there. I did it. Look.”

This is the point at which most people congratulated me on my achievement of gaining a BA honours.
I love the look on people’s faces when they ask what the degree is in and I say it’s an open degree and actually I could have a BSc because I studied lots of ‘ologies as well as arts and humanities. Studying with the OU is a unique experience where one can choose a specific named degree course or explore lots of different subjects.

But what they didn’t congratulate me on was the courage it took me to sign up for my very first module in 2000, when all through my life formal education had been a fairly unhappy experience, and I seriously doubted myself and my abilities to cope in many ways.
And they didn’t congratulate me on managing to find 13 modules to suit my interests that had no exams to sit in a public place – so I could see them through to the end without panicking.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to pass 13 modules without attending a single tutorial or meeting a single tutor either.
Nor did they congratulate me on managing to learn to interact socially online and make new, life-long friends.
They didn’t congratulate me on using my educational and online social experiences to improve the way I approach my thinking about life and society.
They didn’t congratulate me on my bloody-mindedness when self-esteem hit an all time low, and I had to fight to not let fear pull me out of something yet again.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to find time to study when I got weeks and weeks behind because the rest of adult/family life had taken priority.

What a lot of non-OU-students probably don’t grasp is that however important it is to us, for mature students with a family, study usually comes last. It’s often finding the time, motivation and the staying power that’s the difficult bit.

They didn’t realise that learning stuff was the easy bit. In comparison.

They didn’t congratulate me on battling against an onslaught of recurring unexplained physical and mental symptoms – such as headaches, exhaustion and brain fog – that regularly left me unable to function.

They didn’t congratulate me on simply getting dressed on the day of the ceremony.

People who know me congratulated me on managing to attend the ceremony and getting through the 24 hours prior to the ceremony. That was one magnificent achievement, only made possible by a swift prescription of beta blockers the day before.

You see it’s just become official that I have anxiety – and have probably had it for 40 years. The GP used the word “anxiety” in a sentence when talking about me, passing me a leaflet, and discussing therapy yesterday so I know it’s true. It was thanks to my degree ceremony that I made the call and began to start accepting help.

All my life I have let fear stop me from doing things because of the immense physical relief I gain when I back out of things. Life has taught me that not doing things is better. Facing your fears is not good; it hurts and doesn’t come with reward. It became clear to me in my late teens that it was easier to not turn up for A level lessons, it would be easier not to plan to go to university, not to have too many commitments. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted coping with a room full of people for any length of time, and can’t concentrate for long, so what would be the point anyway?

The Open University’s unique “openness” answered all of my problems: study in my own time, at my own pace, no lessons, no social commitments, no compulsory tutorials, a choice of online modules with no exam, tutors who can be emailed, online social areas.

It’s been awesome and I’ve been on the OU website 3 times this week drooling over all the subjects I’m still interested in or think might be useful.

I will really miss the OU – it’s been my lifeline. But I simply can’t afford it anymore.

I got there. I did it. Look.

19 thoughts on “Thank y’OU!

  1. Well done, Rachel. (I’m so pleased you went to the doctor too. I’ve suffered from anxiety since I lived in Tokyo. Sometimes the symptoms are debilitating. I try to keep my life simple but can sometimes suffer during the kids’ stressful periods too)

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  2. Fabulous post, Rach. I’m really proud of you (and we haven’t even properly met YET. I loved what you said about feeling alone in the ceremony. I think sometimes we forget that we can stand alone in our achievements. Also, by the way, that last picture is Brilliant!

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  3. So wonderful, a fantastic achievement on all the fronts you say. I know a little bit about avoiding the outside world and it might just be the wiring we creative types have so it is wonderful that you could attend and be there in person for the recognition of this landmark in your life. I’m delighted for you. x

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  4. Great post, Rachel. I know exactly what you mean about the loneliness during the ceremony: such a peculiar experience (I thought it was just me!).

    Congratulations on getting through everything, it’s a bloody brilliant achievement, and I’m so glad to hear that the graduation has been a catalyst to helping you address some other stuff.

    And a huge thank you to you for making my OU experience a fantastic one. I found my online OU community invaluable.

    Three cheers for Rachel 🙂 xx

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  5. Fantastic – you fill me with hope. I WILL get there one day. I hope you don’t mind me reblogging this post. Some other OU students pop into my blog and, like me, I know that this will strike a much needed chord. Congratulations – you did it 😉

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  6. Well done, Missus!
    I admire you so much, you know. I couldn’t have done what you did. I would have procrastinated with every assignment with the fear of failure until failure was the only option. I’d be useless. Well done for facing all your fears and for surviving the weekend.
    Nxxx

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  7. Congratulations. Well done you and all your fellow students. Harold Wlson said that the thing he was most proud of as Prime Minister was giving the go-ahead for the OU.

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  8. Well done for putting your flag in the moon Rachel. My ceremony was the hardest part of my degree for different reasons (its a month ago on my blog I think.) Its an amazing institution that can open a whole new world for so many people. Such a shame it is becoming so inaccessible now. GREAT photos and I was so close to you, I would have come to wave you on xx

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  9. Well done Rachel. You sound so like your mother. Many congratulations on beating your demons!!!! Thanks for reminding me how lucky I have been to to ‘prove to myself’ in my 20s.without hang ups. That has given me the energy to bash on.

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  10. I think Rachel prefers to be considered like her father. But I, her mother, am inordinately proud of my beautiful, intelligent, talented, creative, courageous (in both English & French meanings of the word) daughter, who is a very good wife, mother and daughter as well as a good and succesful student and writer.
    Lots and lots of love, always,
    Mum

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  11. Hi Rachel,

    ‘ Graduation itself was nice and moving, and kind of weird – lonely almost.’

    Wow that sums up how I felt at my graduation ceremony in 2013. It still seems surreal and I get blank expressions from people when I tell them what my degree choice was. Like you I had to find one which didn’t involve exams and had modules which held my attention.

    I’m so pleased you managed to get there and it’s good to put a face to the lady who brought ‘Kissing Frankenstein and other stories,’ to fruition.

    Best regards,

    Talia

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  12. I stumbled across this after googling OU graduation pictures. It’s as if I could have written this piece, you’ve summed up studying with the OU so well. I recently completed my BSc Hons in psychology (December 2014). Now I’m doing two additional modules to get my BA Hons Criminology degree. Two full degrees in 4 1/2 years. Not bad for a mum of two autistic sons. I’m also starting my MSc in Health Psychology in a brick uni in September 2015. I’m so unbelievably anxious over starting this. Anyway. I just felt compelled to write on here 🙂

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