The grandfather, the parademic and the mayor – Open University students graduate at Ely Cathedral
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
For some, it offered a route to a new career. For others, it was a way of improving self-confidence. And yet more, it helped them keep in touch with new technology after retirement.
But whatever their stories, today will be a day of celebration for hundreds of Open University students as they come together at Ely Cathedral to graduate with their degrees.
The university was founded in 1969 to make higher education accessible to more people, and then prime minister Harold Wilson described it as the greatest achievement of his premiership.
It is the largest higher education institution in the UK, having taught more than 1.7m people, and it currently has 264,000 students,
Students learn in their own time using course materials, online activities and content, web-based forums and tutorials through tutor groups and residential schools.
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As many of the students graduating today can testify, the unique flexibility of the university has allowed thousands of people to fit years of study around child care commitments, illness and careers.
The OU helped Juliet Harrison, from Aylsham, get a job as a paramedic, and enabled her to fit study around care of her children.
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She said: 'It involved about 15 to 20 hours a week, when the children were asleep or when Brian [her husband], who works shifts, was looking after them. Without him I could not have done it.'
It took her six years to gain an ordinary science degree in 2007, before adding BSc Hons in 2012, with a four-year break in the middle.
'It helped me get my paramedic job and the chemistry and human biology gives you massive under-pinning knowledge that makes me a better paramedic and more confident,' she said.
Also graduating today is Caroline Topping, the new mayor of Beccles. She is known in the town as a working mother of two, volunteer and fundraiser.
But behind the scenes the 46-year-old has been quietly working away for the past five years on an Open University degree in criminology and psychology.
Juggling her different roles hasn't been easy, but she has relished the challenge.
She said: 'You have to be very organised. I really missed it when it all stopped and after I had done the final exam.
'The first year I did it, it was really hard with my children being so young, having to go to work and looking after the house and I begged my husband not to let me sign up for the second year.
'Somehow though after the exam I found myself saying that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be so I kept signing up for four years!'
Matthew Caton, also from Beccles, said: 'I am 36 years old and have been studying with the OU for nine years. The degree I have achieved is the B13 Honours Degree in Computing and Information Technology (Open).'
For the past 15 years he has worked as a printer at a local firm in Bungay.
'I initially studied with the OU as a means of moving away from printing and creating my own career in IT. The IT career is still a small part of my working life, however the OU has given me valuable experience in a wide range of subjects within the IT sphere and I now have a good understanding of how e-commerce and i-centric industries are established and developed,' said Matthew.
He added: 'I chose the OU as the accessibility allowed me to work full time while studying. My main career life has not changed, but I do now have options and other avenues that I may pursue. The sense of achievement is the greatest reward from studying with the OU and also the respect from friends, family and work colleagues has given me a huge confidence boost.'
Judy Brooks, from Barnham, near Thetford, achieved an open BA which included modules in teaching, English, maths, science and creative writing.
Mrs Brooks, who started the course six years ago, first enrolled when she was a single mum in a bid to help her overcome self-esteem and self-confidence issues and to prove to herself she could do it.
Since starting the course, the 44-year-old has married her childhood sweetheart and has three children.
During the latter modules of her course, she spent a lot of time visiting and helping an elderly terminally-ill cousin and dealing with his estate after his death.
Her eldest child, 12-year-old Aisling, has dyslexia and dyspraxia and her youngest, Joshua, now three, was seriously ill in the final year of her studies and was on life support in the intensive care unit at Addenbrooke's Hospital with inflammation on the brain.
Mrs Brooks said: 'When I first started, I was a single parent and I wanted to develop a career to support my daughter. I was juggling three jobs at the time, I was a teaching assistant, cleaner and admin assistant.
'At first it was a struggle, I hadn't done any studying since I left school and O-levels were the highest I had done before.
'I got married in 2010 but it got to the point that I thought I was that close, I wanted to still finish it.'
'I would say to anyone considering it, go for it. It's hard work and you have to be organised and flexible but it is enjoyable.'
When Lucille Reed, of Worlingham, near Beccles, was completing the second year of her MEd, she had plenty of other things to occupy her mind.
'I completed my second year of my MEd whilst my twin boys were in Neonatal Intensive Care after being born at 28 weeks (three months early). My tutor at the time was very supportive and really helped me continue.
'I also had the support of my husband, Jonathan Reed, and my friends and family. I then decided to continue with the third and final year whilst my husband worked offshore – some long nights which weren't all baby related! I am so proud to have completed the qualification and have to thank my employer, Easton College, for their support as well,' she said.
And a 73-year-old Hopton grandfather will graduate with a first – after 11 years of studying at the Open University.
Over the last few years, and proving that a degree is possible at any age, Robert Taylor has completed a course in IT and Computing, and graduated with a first class honours degree.
It started after his retirement, when Mr Taylor took a couple of modules to keep up with technology and fill his time. But, after becoming hooked on learning, he found himself going the distance.
'I became addicted,' he said, 'I never got the chance to do a degree in my younger days. I'm ecstatic with the result.'
Mr Taylor said his wife Nancy, 72, was as happy as he was, adding: 'She told me I was a very clever boy, but she's happy she'll get to see me a bit more often now.'
Today we salute the perseverance, motivation and intellectual achievement of dedicated students from across the region as they celebrate their well-earned success.