In their own words: Open University graduates on their years of study, challenge and fulfilment

Husband and wife Andrew and Barbara Coe, who both received Open University degrees at Ely Cathedral

Husband and wife Andrew and Barbara Coe, who both received Open University degrees at Ely Cathedral on Saturday. Photo: Keith Heppell - Credit: Archant

It was a moment of pride after many years of hard study – often while holding down a job, battling illness, or dealing with family crises.

Here, in their own words, some of the Open University students from our region, most of whom graduated at Ely Cathedral on Saturday, explain why they decided to sign up for their course, the barriers they overcame, and what their success means to them.

A spokesman for the university said: 'The students' reasons for undertaking their degree courses were as individual as they are themselves: what they share is the self discipline, motivation and commitment to work for a degree in their own time.'

For more information about the Open University, its courses, and how to sign up, see

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Andrew and Barbara Coe, Norfolk

We are a married couple both receiving our Open University Masters degrees at Ely on the same day, Saturday, May 30 – Barbara in classical studies and Andrew in art history.

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For both of us the nine-year journey has been intellectually stretching, although it has been a challenging and stimulating hobby rather than a vocational choice. We are now retired, but were both in full time work when we started studying, Barbara as a teacher at Hellesdon High School and Andrew with Royal Mail and Norfolk County Council.

Trips as a back-up to study have taken us to Italy and the Greek Islands, to see places and pictures at first hand, although Andrew's research on the Norwich Society of Artists included scouring 19th century copies of the Norwich Mercury and Norfolk Chronicle in the Millennium Library.

Barbara's dissertation on the role of fabrics in ancient Greek literature reflected a lifelong interest which continues to find expression in an active role in the Norwich Costume and Textiles Association. We both found the experience challenging and fulfilling, and it gave a strong sense of focus, and finally a great sense of achievement.

We would thoroughly recommend the OU experience to anyone wishing to challenge themselves either vocationally or simply for self-realisation.

Carol Allen, Norfolk

I chose the Open University because it supported part-time study which I needed as I worked full-time and I knew someone who was already enjoying their study with the OU.

As I knew studying one thing would not suit my personality and I have always been interested in environment issues, it seemed natural I would select the Environmental Studies degree.

This allowed me to study a broad range of subjects around climate change such as the social and economic impact.

I certainly feel more informed now and it served to satisfy my curiosity. My study has not only encouraged me to ask more questions and be more challenging about these issues but also introduced me to many interesting people.

My study times were mostly in the evenings after work but also included some weekends although I tried to keep my study and personal life in balance.

I owe thanks to my husband, Mervyn, who took over the cooking and has greatly improved his skills. His support was invaluable.

During the six years of study I went through a hip replacement, but used the six-week recovery time to study, and a broken arm, which meant one final module submission was finished left-handed.

Distance learning was a big advantage at these times as I could complete everything online – useful when you can't drive.

My job involves delivering funding to local action groups and these are often rural developments so the study has really helped my understanding of their issues.

I found the degree really stimulating and suited to my 'butterfly' personality.

Jan Feeney, Norwich

I didn't do a Masters degree when I was younger but always wanted to.

I had a Diploma in Education Management, a post graduate qualification, but still wanted my Masters.

My eldest son had graduated and my youngest son had started university when I started to think it was now 'my time' so I enrolled with the Open University.

My youngest son was doing his own degree and then Masters at the same time I was studying, so we provided great support for each other and helped each other out.

There was a lot of juggling and prioritising as I work full time and my study often took up my weekends.

As I was working in education, though, I could relate my studies to my job, which was really useful.

This represents a major achievement for me, having successfully completed a Masters degree alongside balancing work and home commitments.

The OU gave me the opportunity, and I needed the flexibility the OU provides to work at my own pace, in my own time.

I found you have to be disciplined and sharpen your time-management skills.

This study has also given me confidence in my abilities and provides an excellent platform for the future.

I was delighted that both my sons and my parents joined me at my ceremony.

Judith Phillip, Norfolk

It has always been one of my biggest regrets that I did not go to university but instead went straight to college and then into employment.

However, furthering my education was always very important to me and as a result I was continually taking different courses while working and bringing up my family.

It was not until after my A-levels that I thought, 'You know what, I could start a University degree now'. My family had grown up, I had a full time job but I still had a burning ambition to get the degree I had always dreamed of. I was very nervous at first but discovered that my tutor was really welcoming and supportive. I had the chance to meet other students at the tutorials and made strong friendships right from the start. We would often meet up online, through the OU, or face-to-face to discuss and support each other with assignments.

Later I travelled to tutorials and the residential schools at the University of Caen and at the University of Santiago. The work got steadily harder and it is true to say that the advanced level French almost took over my life. After three years of French I moved onto Spanish, starting at a lower level but completing the advanced level in my fourth year. It has taken me seven years to achieve my Bachelor of Arts Open Degree as I felt one course a year was all I could cope with while holding down employment. I am now continuing with one further year to convert my open degree into a BA Hons degree in Modern Languages.

It has been an incredible journey, very hard work at times but the sense of achievement when the assignment scores came in and when I could finally achieve my degree has been enormous.

I graduated at The Barbican with my family around me.

I feel incredibly proud that I have stuck to my studies and kept motivated.

I would not have been able to do it without the support of the tutors, my new university friends and my family and friends.

Sue Hennebry, Ely

At 18, I decided not to go to university but it had always been at the back of my mind that I wanted to study to degree level. I started my Life Sciences degree study in 2009 at the age of 48.

I was always interested in science and health issues, and in 2007 I started a work at a bio-technology company. I had experience of cancer through my own brother's leukaemia in 1991, and when I was pregnant with my son it transpired I was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant for my brother. So six weeks after my son's birth I donated my bone marrow. Through my own experience, and through my work and speaking to patients impacted by disease, my desire to understand the science behind diseases and medicines increased, and I knew the time was 'now or never' to fulfil my desire to study for a science degree so I started with the OU in 2008. To say it has been a rollercoaster experience is an understatement. During my studies my mum died and other close family members have experienced serious illnesses including cancer. Throughout these terrible times I somehow managed to keep going even though the temptation to throw in the towel was very strong.

My father is now 93 and I am one of his main carers but throughout everything – including my mum's death – he wanted me to continue and he is very proud that I have achieved my goal.

I have juggled study time at evenings and weekends with support and many cups of tea from my husband. The impact of a decision to study extends to the whole family, not just the individual, with many, 'sorry I can't, I have to study' in response to requests.

I don't know what the future holds but I do know my scientific knowledge is extremely relevant to my work and life, I also know I wouldn't change my decision to study with the OU. My sense of achievement is immense.

Karen Flack, Suffolk

I wanted to study when my daughter was a baby, so enrolled with the OU as I could study from home.

I didn't have A-levels, so took an access course, which was really more as a hobby.

What started as a pastime soon got me hooked with interesting coursework, discussions and social interaction with tutors and like-minded students, and I moved on to studying for a degree.

When my daughter was young I could fit the study into my routine, studying when she was sleeping and going to tutorials when family members could take over childcare.

I met a lot of people, both at tutorials and online and enjoyed the chance to talk over the subjects which greatly improved my confidence.

The confidence also spilled over into my work, and I was achieved a promotion as I could demonstrate extra key skills from my OU study.

Once I got my degree I applied for a new role, in a totally different field, and I got the job.

Throughout the study my life has completely changed, from part-time to full-time work, dealing with a divorce, becoming a single parent and moving house.

I left the OU to undertake study at a different university that was mandated by my previous employer, but returned to the OU to complete my Bachelor's degree because I was impressed by the opportunities available and standards of education material.

The OU made it possible to fit study around my life no matter what happened and that is why I would recommend the OU to anyone wishing to be inspired.

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