Two days ago, I attended the Open University Degree Ceremony in Edinburgh where, many months after finishing my Master’s degree, I was able to enjoy the glory that I had been striving towards for the previous few years. These occasions are notoriously emotional at the best of times, but on Saturday I spoke with some truly remarkable people who had overcome all manner of issues to achieve the success that they either thought, or had been told, they never would achieve.
I was the only person that whole day who was graduating with an MA in English; well, to be fair, there were only two of us in the whole of Scotland. My fellow degree-mate lives in the Western Isles which makes travelling to Edinburgh tricky at the best of times, so I was not surprised that she did not attend. I was sitting between two gentlemen in the hall: one had a string of other degrees, and had undertaken an MA in Classics just to widen his already vast knowledge base, whilst the other had left school early back in the 1970s, with no qualifications. Two complete ends of the spectrum. While one man has been to so many graduation ceremonies that he had thought about missing this one, the other had achieved his first Master’s degree, and his sense of pride was evident. Their stories are typical with those of others whom I have met over the years: some have had disabilities which left them struggling at school, some had had the fun of learning sucked out of them as teenagers, while others had been told that they were ‘too thick’ to go far in life and effectively written-off. I read an online post the other day by a girl who enrolled on an Open University degree course as a drunken dare, who then – rather than quitting like she thought she would – ended up graduating with a first-class honours degree very recently. Others have existing qualifications, but they want knowledge in a new area to keep them occupied in retirement, or purely for self-improvement. Even more had family members to look after while they were studying, or indeed the demands of employment to juggle. To see graduates in tears as they crossed the stage spoke of the obstacles each of them had overcome to be there and it was a truly humbling place to be. As person after person crossed the stage on Saturday, and as my hands became sore from clapping for each and every one of them, I saw hundreds and hundreds of human beings filled with well-earned potential to change not only themselves, but also their workplace, their communities, or even the world. Age and ability are not limits to success.
Of course, a university education is not the ideal route for everyone to pursue – there are very many skilled people in our communities whose valuable practical abilities I for one would never be able to emulate – no matter how many years it would take me to learn! However, if a diploma or a degree is the desired outcome, then they come at a financial and personal cost. Despite grants (for some), funding, and loans, pursuing a dream involves personal and financial sacrifices to be made by people many of whom already have very little time or money. Within the past few years universities have had to raise their tuition fees, a factor which now makes education even more elusive to the keen learner. At the moment, it unfortunately looks as if student loans are here for a while, but one can only hope that the grant system (similar to that through which I obtained my Bachelor’s degree back last century) somehow makes a re-appearance. Scottish and EU students get undergraduate study free – at the moment anyway – but it really should be the same from elsewhere too. As I saw on Saturday, education is a game-changer, the pride and joy of all the graduates and their families was priceless and just went to prove that self-belief and perseverance reap rewards. Although I didn’t know them, I was incredibly proud of them.
Many thanks to the Open University, my family, and my friends for getting me to where I am today.