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'I left school early at 16. Now I'm a mature student at 51 - it's never too late to go to college'

Deirdre O’Regan is 51 and in her final year of her degree. She went back to college after 30 years – here’s her story.

Deirdre O'Regan

WHEN I WAS going to school, unless you wanted to be a solicitor or a doctor, nobody went to college.

There were plenty of jobs – which is why nobody went to college. That was the reason I left school at 16: my sister-in-law rang me and said there’s a job here if you want it, so I took that job.

I stayed there for a while and then I went on to various different jobs – I used to make components for computers and then I went to back office administration.

I also had my own children. I actually got very interested again in education through just doing things with my kids.

But I still had no interest in going back to school. I was a part of the community in Knocknaheeny in Cork, where I grew up, and ended up doing a lot of courses there, in youth work and other subjects.

But I still didn’t intend to go to college. I don’t know whether it was just that I didn’t feel the need to go to college, or was it because there was nothing drawing me there.

‘I hadn’t written an essay in 32 years’

I had started up in Cork City Partnership in Knocknaheeny on a CE scheme when I was out of work. I loved it.

And that really opened my eyes then to what I would actually love to do, because whether it’s youth work or community work it doesn’t matter – I actually loved the whole thing of it.

I started doing all these small courses: influencing and decision-making, and community participation. And then Cork City Partnership, Cork ETB and UCC decided to run an outreach programme to do a diploma in Women’s Studies for two years.

I said alright, I’ll try that – even though at that stage I hadn’t written an essay in 32 years.

I actually enjoyed it – there were people in their 20s and people in their 60s on the course, and it was mainly held in Knocknaheeny.

From there I thought to myself: “Right, OK, I can actually do this.” I wasn’t afraid of writing an essay any more, so I decided that I would actually try to go back to college. I was really encouraged by the others at Cork City Partnership. I realised that I needed a degree to help me progress with my work.

The degree in community work is for three years, and I’m in my final year now. When I started the diploma that was OK because that was only one day a week.

I can understand how people don’t go back to college or school when their kids are young, because it’s hard to arrange things – have someone collecting the kids for example. And then housework, your home life, everything falls away a little bit. You’re trying to juggle everything.

I have loads of support, my mam and dad are around if I am stuck.

You have to have the support of the family because you’re saying “look, sorry no lads, I can’t do this with ye and I have to do my work”. But my family, and my kids Amy and Robert, are proud of me.

I would still say today that it was all definitely worth it.

‘Do I even know what they’re talking about?’

shutterstock_144639884 UCC Source: Shutterstock/Peter O'Toole

My first day in UCC was nerve-wracking. In fairness to UCC, they do a lot of work beforehand in making you feel welcome.

It’s a full-time course and involves two days in college and a 16-hour placement as well.

For the first month I was going there to lectures and I was saying “oh my God, do I even know what they are talking about?”, because I didn’t. Some people in my class would have already done some youth and community diplomas for example. But I was raw to all this and it was hard at the start.

But you get used to it and you fall into it.

Then there’s loads of support out there so once you use your support, it’s easier. And good classmates, they’re better than any support. We had a great class – everybody was looking out for everybody.

It’s a lovely class because they’re lovely people and there’s a nice mix of ages, and they don’t make you feel old.

I love being in UCC. I love the whole university experience: I actually went to college, I am actually over in UCC the same as everybody else, having a cup of tea watching the world go by. I never thought it would happen for me.

My mam and dad always told us you can be whatever you want to be, no matter what. At the time I don’t know did we know enough about college, did we know enough about fees and all of that.

As we go on in life, things change. As I say to my kids, when you’re 21 you’ll think differently to when you’re 18, and so on.

I would say to people, it doesn’t matter what course you do, if you actually get involved in a course. It might be knitting or something like that, but you are talking to other people and other people’s experience passes down.

What have I learned by going to college? I’ve learned a lot of academic stuff, but I have come to realise I knew a lot of stuff myself and I can now say “I knew that”, but now I can actually put it into practice.

I love to be able to pass on information. What you’re learning isn’t all about the college, but the connections that you make while you’re there help everybody else. All the people you encounter will benefit from your experience.

If you’re thinking about going to college as a mature student, I would say whatever you’re worried about, don’t worry about it because you can sort it out while you’re there.

There is nothing that you can’t do. If you have a worry like your literacy or your numeracy, or you could have dyslexia, they have support for everything in college. So there is actually nothing that would stop you from going to college, there is support there for every single thing.

I’m going to feel delighted when I graduate. For myself, it will be a great achievement.

I would say to people, there are great opportunities out there, and get involved – you don’t have to go for a degree, you can do something small in your community.

As they say: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

As told to TheJournal.ie in conversation with Aoife Barry.

Deirdre O’Regan is a lifelong learning advocate. Today was day two of the Unesco third International Conference on Learning Cities, which is taking place in Cork. It involves a delegation of over 650 people from 92 countries discussing lifelong learning across the world. To find out more, visit the website, follow @Corklearning on Twitter or like the Cork Learning on Facebook.

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Deirdre O'Regan

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