In my house, when I was younger, my Da worked in the Tayto factory, my oldest brother was a bartender and my other brother was carpenter and my Ma cleaned other peoples houses, worked in a bar and basically did everything else around our house except put the bins out. I was doing my Leaving Cert and hadn’t a clue what I was going to do.
However the year was 1994 and I think that was the first year college became free for everyone. So I completed my Leaving Cert and all of a sudden found myself studying Business and Marketing in DIT Mountjoy. It seemed like everyone was studying Business because it meant you could make more money. Looking back now I wasn’t doing the right course for me and as a result I failed 2nd year and dropped out.
I messed around for a few years. I worked in bars and actually worked in a hospital. It was in the hospital that I realised I wanted to work in a career that worked with people. A place were relationships mattered.
In 2003 I returned to college as a mature student to complete a social science degree. My aim was to become a social worker. I ended up shifting from social worker to focusing on social policy. That lead me to working in the field of education. Somehow that turned into a career in adult education and guidance. Things sort of happened in terms of the jobs I got after graduating. The one thing that continued was all the jobs I had, were built on relationships with people.
What got me back into college was a lucky meeting with a person in my local Citizens Advice Centre. I was talking about how I wanted to get a career. How I was always disappointed I didn’t do well in college. The woman told me that since I was over 23 I could apply to the CAO for any course I wanted. My Leaving Cert points no longer mattered. I just had to convince the college in my Personal Statement that I was the right person for the course.
That wasn’t the only nugget of great information delivered at the right time that I got from the Citizens Info. Now remember this was back in 2002 – just hitting Celtic Tiger time so there was lots of funding support for going to college. The woman also told me that I could apply to Dublin City Council for a grant that would pay my fees (this is the SUSI grant now). On top of that if was collecting job-seekers payment for 3 months I would be entitled to the Back to Education Allowance.
This was all mind-boggling to me and I went about addressing each step of the process. First my CAO – get that done and get a place – Then my grant with DCC (now SUSI) – then move from Job Seekers payment onto Back to Education so I’m getting a weekly payment. Back then we got, I think €240, per week and you could do some hours in a bar without losing any money. It made all the difference for me and enabled me to focus on my studies and actually do alright in college.
The financial barrier was always the biggest one for me. Thanks to really good government schemes that barrier was removed. These schemes still exist today but not to the same extent as they did nearly 20 years ago. I’m amazed watching students complete courses and still survive on the financial assistance they receive these days. Massive respect to all that persevere. And good to see other funding supports like the Student Assistance Fund and the 1916 Bursary being offered as some support.
My experience of going to college the second time was fantastic. I was far more interested in the stuff I was studying. Far more committed to attending classes and doing well in assignments. The learning side of going to college was inspiring to me and I found that very fulfilling. I knew I was doing the right thing/course for me. It’s not easy to figure that out when you’re younger. Thankfully the colleges let you mix and match what students are learning these days so you don’t have to get trapped in one area of study.
Going to college is different as a mature student. We are up the front, always engaging in tutorials, asking questions (even at 4.55pm on a Friday afternoon lecture). The balance in colleges between mature and younger students is what makes them interesting places to be in. Meeting new people, learning and doing new things is what college is all about no matter what age you are.
So if I was going to give someone considering going to college a word of advice 100% definitely do it. Before you do, link in with someone who can help you make sense of all the courses that are out there and all the supports you can access too. For me it was all about one meeting with one person at the right time. They gave me the exact information I needed to know I could actually do it. And there’s loads of people in the colleges, in communities and in your neighbourhood that can do that.
When I was doing my degree, my hopes for when I finished the degree was to find work in a job that made me not dread getting out of bed in the morning. I’ve realised now that it’s not the job that has that power but me instead. But completing a few years of study and learning gave me that insight into who I am rather than the jobs that I found myself in.