Updated: Sep 1, 2021
“The best life changing decision I ever made was to go to university, but as a college dropout, I never imagined I'd make it!”
The College Dropout
At 18 I waved goodbye to my friends as they left for university. I'd dropped out of college at 17 and was working almost full time in my local Tesco store. At that time, education felt as if it was just something I’d had to conform with.
I enrolled at college at 16 because school pushed me to and my friends were going, but I found college education very difficult. Like most 16 year olds, I had no idea what I wanted in life, so I’d chosen 5 random A levels varying from Sociology to PE. Those first weeks in class felt as if I'd skipped a step, the academic jump from school to college was not something I was prepared for. At school, I’d been lucky to not revise for exams and still pass, so I didn’t really understand the concept of revision.
To no surprise, I failed my first year. My exam results spelled D.U.D.E, I felt like a failure, college seemed impossible. I stopped attending and avoided campus, until returning to inform the principal I’d be leaving. I felt relieved, my parents were okay with me dropping out as I already had a job and my driving license. They'd never been to college or university and were always supportive of my choices.
Can I go back into Higher Education?
After 5 years, I started to feel unfulfilled in my job, I'd worked my way up to team leader by age 20, but I started to crave a different path. I reviewed my options, I was 22 with average GCSE's and a Retail qualification from work. I thought about the possibility of university for the first time,“was it what I needed?”, “could I secure a role in a career I’d love and gain security from?”. I knew this decision wouldn’t be easy and I didn’t know where to start. A college dropout didn’t have the qualifications to meet university entry requirements. I researched my options and discovered the best route was to return to college. This was a daunting thought after my initial experiences, but after much deliberation, I called my local college to enquire about a course to get me to university. It seemed a 2 year Business Management BTEC course was the best option for me. It would give me the time to prepare for university and all the credits I'd need. I had car finance, a full time job and caring responsibilities, so I’d have 2 years to pay the finance, save money, prepare everything and get used to having less income.
But still, the thought of being 22 years old, returning to college, sitting in the same classroom as 16 and 17 year olds scared me. I felt they’d all know so much more than me, as I’d been out of education for so long, “would I be good enough?” or would I hate it, like the first time around.
Overcoming the Mindset & Financial Worries
I entered the classroom, new backpack in hand, inside, my very first laptop, purchased especially for this new journey. I felt like an adult meeting my teen years again, lost and unsure if I belonged there. I spoke with a few classmates, which confirmed my worries, they were all between 16 and 18 years old, adding to my questions of belonging. But my drive to learn soon took over. My tutors were so supportive and the doubts disappeared the longer I attended. I found as a mature student, I connected more with tutors and their support made all the difference, they made me realise, I could do this!
College was hard work, I was attending full time classes, working a 30 hour week and caring everyday for my elderly Grandma, but I felt more energised and determined than ever! I was now solely focused on achieving this goal.
After 2 years I'd secured Distinctions in every module of my course and I was going to university! Sadly, my Grandma passed before she could see me do it. I’d never truly shaken the feeling of not belonging at college, but the excitement of this new path and going to university pushed me forward. I found a sense of belonging in knowing I was on the path to achieving greater things, and knowing Grandma would be smiling down, egging me on.
I had no financial support for university, so Student Finance was my lifeline. Being 24 when I started, I wasn't old enough to qualify for Independent status at 25, meaning the loan amount would depend on my income alone. But I found out, as I was employed, I could qualify by including 3 years of P60’s in the application, along with a letter explaining my situation.
I received confirmation I'd be given the highest loan amount, in 2016 this was £8,500 per year. I was over the moon, a weight had been lifted, I knew now could afford to go to university! I’d move from full time to part time work for my studies, as my job offered a transfer to a store near my university, meaning I also had job security!
Everything was set, all I had to do was pack my bags and drive to move into the student halls I had secured. I couldn’t believe it, 2 years ago university was merely an idea, or rather an ideal, and now it was happening. “Was I ready for student life?”, “Would I make friends?” I wasn’t sure if I would relate with my peers with being a mature student. “Would student life suit me?" Or would I be driven crazy by too many drinking games. “Did I really have the academic level for university?”, I’d excelled in the BTEC course, but I was worried the academic jump was going to be too huge again.
I assumed the younger students would be better than me, but I was so wrong. I soon found my years of work experience were of value when my courses started to look at case studies in which I had real world experience. This meant not only did I know more, I could see the value of the theoretical work we were doing and how it linked to my future.
How University has Changed my Life
Now as the title of this blog might suggest, I was born and raised in Scunthorpe, a small industrial northern town that's unheard of to most, and for those who do know it, you'll understand why this journey has been so important.
Having lived in Scunthorpe for 24 years, I thought I'd follow in the footsteps of my family, in finding a career that paid enough to live and enjoying holidays when possible. But university opened up my world and gave me the skills and confidence to choose my own path. Now I'm able to work and live wherever life takes me, which is currently freelancing in Paris.
Who would’ve guessed it? Not me, that’s for sure. I was a village girl, college dropout, making a living in a supermarket job and now I’m living and freelancing in one of the world's most beautiful cities. University truly changed my life forever!
A lot happened in those 4 years studying Business and Events Management at the University of the West of England, but I’ll summarise the best I can. I made amazing friends and had life changing experiences. I jumped at opportunities to develop myself, especially through volunteering. I excelled in my classes, realised my calling and created my own events brands.
I secured my dream festival job working for Boomtown Fair and curated the music stage for the famous Bristol Balloon Fiesta. I built a huge network of connections and gained a ton of confidence in myself and my abilities. I experienced living in another country with Erasmus, having lived and studied in Budapest for one year, where I gained friends all over the world and sparked my ambition to live & work abroad. Finally, I graduated with a 1st Class Honours Degree.
I could not be prouder or happier with my achievements, but I wouldn’t have done any of these things without dealing with that initial mindset of going into higher education. I had to choose to change everything I knew and have confidence in myself to prosper in this new journey. It wasn’t easy, but it was the best decision I ever made.
So there you have it, taking those first steps to university can turn into something magical and change your life forever. There'll always be questions, doubts and worries, but everyone is capable of achieving and succeeding in higher education. With the right knowledge, support and guidance, university is not as scary as it seems. If you have the drive and motivation to do it, anything is possible.
A note from Casey:
Of course this is the shortened version of my story as it's difficult to summarise 6 years into a blog piece. So if anyone reading this has any questions or would like to chat over any worries they have about being a mature student, you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org