Proud day for Open University graduates

Victoria NichollsPeople from across the region from all walks of life will came together this weekend to celebrate what will be one of the proudest days of their lives.Victoria Nicholls

People from across the region from all walks of life will came together this weekend to celebrate what will be one of the proudest days of their lives.

One-by-one they were called out in front of friends and family to receive their degree certificates at a ceremony in Ely Cathedral.

The special occasion is a reward for the years of dedication it has taken for them to graduate from The Open University in the East of England. They range in ages and background, but each has overcome hurdles to fulfil a common ambition.

Chancellor of The Open University Lord Puttnam presented the graduates with their degree certificates that will open doors in both their work and personal lives.

As well as first-time graduates, there is a steady increase in students with a first degree, either returning to The Open University to study at post-graduate level, or having received their first degree elsewhere.

The OU has also seen how the recession is playing a part in student applications, in that many people who have lost their jobs over the past two years are using their period of unemployment to increase their skills and knowledge base.

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The Open University, which has 25 centres across the East of England, offers students flexible timeframes, giving people with busy lives a chance to undertake degrees at their own pace.

Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 2m students who learn in their own time using course materials, online activities, web-based forums and tutorials through tutor groups and residential schools.

At 18, Faye Andrews went to university but left after a year to go to work, before the idea of studying captured her interest again.

For her the OU was a route towards fulfilling her ambition of a new career in teaching.

She said: 'I did one OU course and gave it up because I didn't like it, and then decided to go down the English Language route and stuck with it.

'For me a degree was always something I wanted to do. I want to be a teacher so that's what has kept me going.'

She added: 'I'm lucky that my employers are quite flexible and have allowed me to change my working hours.'

Miss Andrews, 25, now works three days a week as an insurance technician at Marsh insurance brokers in Norwich and two days volunteering at Lakenham Primary School.

She took four years to complete an open degree, focussing on English Language, as she gained a credit transfer from her year at university, and did two courses at once to accelerate her graduation.

As she received funding she has graduated with no student debts, and is hoping to buy a house this year. She is applying for primary teaching courses which she hopes will see her embark on a new career.

Miss Andrews, from Roseville Close in Norwich, said: 'It's about studying and nothing else. You haven't got the social side that younger students perhaps want but there's a big online community so there's no reason you can't make friends.'

She added: 'I haven't got a bad word to say about it - I've had really great tutors all the way through.'

She will be presented her certificate at today's ceremony in front of her Mum, Nan, partner Gavin Bunn and two work colleagues.

Accepting a degree certificate will be a particularly proud moment for Jonny Pratt.

Daily life became more difficult after he was the victim of an attack, but he was determined to get a degree.

He said: 'OU was the only opportunity available to me because at the time I was suffering from quite bad anxiety, so this was a way of being able to get a degree without having to go into places which made me anxious.'

Mr Pratt, 31, said that little-by-little he felt able to attend different venues for tutorials, and that getting good marks in assignments and finding his tutor was pleased with his work helped him overcome his difficulties, adding: 'It was the confidence from that type of self-belief that helped me see past my anxiety.'

Mr Pratt, from Wickmere near Aylsham, worked part-time throughout the six years it took him to complete and today he graduates with a first-class honours in psychology.

For the first three years he worked as a hospital cleaner, and for the past three he has been working as a support worker to children at the Benjamin Foundation, where he is able to put his knowledge to good use.

Since starting the degree his life has turned around in other ways - he met his girlfriend Davina Tebbutt, and the couple now have a 15-month-old daughter, Ida.

They will be with him today, alongside his parents, at the ceremony. He said: 'It's a special day. My life wasn't looking like it was heading for this at one stage so I think it's a reason for them to be proud of me. I want them all to be there.'

It is the second degree in the last decade for June Owen, 61, whose world opened up when she found out she did not need formal qualifications to undertake studies at the OU.

She left school with four O-levels at the age of 17 to work at the GPO because her family needed extra income, and dispelled any thoughts of university.

She worked for most of her working life in insurance, where a colleague who had started an OU course suggested she do the same.

At the age of 51 she took a short course before undertaking a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences with Social Policy and Politics.

After being awarded her degree, and retiring, her thirst for learning prompted her to embark on an open BA degree, which allowed her to explore a lifelong interest in creative writing.

Part of the course involved writing for theatre, which led her to becoming involved in her village's amateur dramatic society.

Last month she had the satisfaction of seeing two performances of a second world war play written and directed by herself, and is about to launch a playwriting competition for Norfolk residents. She said: 'Doing the degree has pushed me into a lot of other things I never dreamed of doing.

'I'd say to other people, go for it. You're not going to lose anything, you're only going to gain. If you're not sure, just pick a subject that you enjoy. Just start with a one-off course and see how it goes.'

Mrs Owen, who is from Garboldisham near Diss, will be accompanied to the graduation ceremony today by her husband David.

Sophie Nicholas, from Norwich, left school without finishing sixth form, married the following year and fell pregnant.

Determined to gain more qualifications, she had enrolled at night school even before having her daughter, and completed an A-level in each of the following three years in Interior Design, English Literature and Business Studies.

She said she felt it was a 'natural progression' to go on to do a degree, and working in administration at the UEA prompted her to look into going away to university. She was offered a place but finances stopped her from being able to take it, so she embarked on a BSc Technology degree with the OU in 2002. She managed to juggle studying with working full-time as a police officer, a job she started the following year, and bringing up her daughter. Now, at 30, she has achieved a first-class honours degree.

She said young people should consider the Open University, as it offered great flexibility.

'You can go straight from school to work and have a career, have a family and get a degree,' she said. 'I have been earning all the time. I would recommend it to anyone. You can still work - you can fit it in around things if you work hard.'

She took seven years to complete the course, having taken a year off studies when her father died in 2005. She said the sad part was that both her father and aunt, who played a big role in encouraging her with her studies, passed away before she graduated. Today though, her mother, partner, and 10-year-old daughter will be watching proudly as she steps up to collect her certificate.

Other local OU graduates include: Patricia Bates, 58, of North Walsham, BA; Emma Caspall, 31, of Norwich, LLB (Hons); Jeffrey Flint, 56, of Lakenheath, BSc; Julie Bowman, 42, of Wisbech, BA (Hons) Childhood and Youth Studies; Adele McCormack, 30, of March.

If you have been inspired to find out more about studying with The Open University, visit its website