A History Degree with The Open University, Hayley’s mature student story

Another amazing mature student story we have here. In this post you can read about Hayley, who started a History Degree with the Open University at 29.

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Hayley’s mature student story

My name is Hayley, I’m a 32 year old wife, mother and mature student. I graduated in 2021 from the Open University with a degree in History, and am now almost a year into my masters at the University of Birmingham.

On top of all that, we are busy renovating and extending our house which we bought last year. I also have two horses, one of whom I am currently training in preparation for his ridden career.

A normal day will therefore see me juggling the housework, horses and studying around the most important job of all … being mama to my two little girls.

Before I decided to enrol at the Open University, I had spent the majority of my adult years feeling rather lost and unsure of what I really wanted from my life.

I had little interest in travelling and had no ambitions for any career. I had never been interested in partying or socialising much outside of the few friends I had made at work.

The only thing I knew with any certainty was that I wanted to have children. University hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Life’s challenges before starting a degree with the Open University

At the age of 20, I slipped a disc in my spine which put constant pressure on my sciatic nerve. I spent many months bedridden before I had recovered enough to pursue extensive physiotherapy which ultimately helped me recover almost completely; though initially I believed that this injury would hinder my mobility indefinitely.

Coupling this with an on/off relationship with a young man who destroyed my self-esteem and confidence, it doesn’t seem that surprising to me now that my mental health was at breaking point. At my lowest ebb, I was afraid of everything I said, everything I hadn’t said and anything I might say.

My mind seemed able to convince me that I had said things that had hurt people I loved. I convinced myself that I was bad, the worst kind of person who needed to be punished. It was a daily battle with my own mind, and I didn’t feel in control of it.

My nerves were so frayed that for six months I survived on less than two hours sleep a day. I felt constantly sick and exhausted, and inevitably I snapped. There really is only so much one person can take. I remember telling my grandmother, who was the only person I had confided in, that I could see no way out of this but to die.

“Battling with my own mind and mental health “

I never did try to take my own life, but I remember standing in the shower one afternoon feeling overwhelmed and guilty for some triviality that my mind had convinced me was the wrong thing to do. I ran a razor over my wrists just enough to cut the skin. Not enough to bleed profusely, but enough to leave a mark. The relief I felt at having punished myself was immense.

It frightened me too. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to live with a demon whispering in my ear. I was so desperately tired that all sense of reality was, for that brief moment, swept away. Despite the reprieve the razor momentarily gave me, it was the moment I knew I needed more help than the confidence of my poor grandmother could give. That was the day I told all to my mother.

We were at the doctors the next morning. By the time I was twenty-four years of age, I had been on antidepressants for a few years; I had attended several rounds of counselling and therapy, and finally ended the relationship I was in.

Fighting back, the start of a new adventure

Far from being completely cured, I was at least in a much better place both mentally and physically. So when Tom came into my life, I was ready for a new adventure.

We had known each other since childhood, and though we went out briefly once before, the time had never been right for either of us. We both jumped at the chance to be with each other. I can say wholeheartedly that without his steadfast support, I would not be who I am today.

Our eldest daughter, Olivia, was born in 2014, and two years later her little sister Eleanor followed. We were married in 2017. I was absorbed with being a mother, and though I had a few part time jobs around my husbands shifts, my only ambition was to be with my daughters. Having my children put things into perspective for me.

Though there were always, and perhaps always will be, triggers which set off my anxiety; I was far better equipped to rationalise them. As long as my children were happy, safe and healthy, everything else was, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. I was content with my lot.

Getting curious about returning to education

A work colleague was talking to me about his family history one day, and it inspired me to do the same. I signed up to Ancestry.com, questioned my grandparents and relatives and started working on my family tree.

I sent off my DNA to see what my ethnicity was and became absorbed with learning about my ancestors. Tom had often suggested I go back into education, but I was never interested until I started researching my family tree.

I had actually done very well academically at school, leaving with 10 GCSEs, an AS level and two A levels; though by the end of sixth form I had lost interest in studying. Hence why I only completed two A levels rather than the usual 3. I did achieve an A and B grade though, and was certainly not unintelligent, just unmotivated.

I did not want to pursue a particular career and wanted a break from studying. The thought of earning money was far more appealing than going to university for the sake of it. The lure of freshers and wild weekends just wasn’t tempting enough for me! Now that I had discovered this passion for genealogy, however, I was starting to wonder about doing something about it.

I signed up for a free course on genealogy at a Scottish university, and again found it uninteresting and dull. I learnt nothing more than I had taught myself whilst making numerous rookie mistakes on my own family tree.

A Degree with the Open University, “distance learning would suit me well”

I don’t remember exactly how I came across the Open University. I was in work talking to a young colleague who had started the job at the same time as me. She was about to take her A level exams, then planning to go straight to university afterwards. She told me about a friend of hers who had studied at the OU and did well.

I knew there was a misconception about the degrees not holding the same worth as brick universities. However, distance learning would suit me well, especially as the Welsh government had that year started the incentive of giving grants to students to help with their studies.

After talking to another colleague who it transpires was a student of the OU at the time, and spoke very highly of the quality of course materials and tutor support, I decided to order a prospectus.

An interest for a History Degree with the Open University

I liked the look of the History BA. The prospectus and website showed that there were numerous modules to choose from, several of which were right up my street. I still had lots of doubts though.

On a practical level, I had not studied history at A level or even GCSE level for that matter. So although I had always been interested, academically I was completely unprepared; especially as I had been out of education for more than a decade. I was also nervous about studying around a one and three year old who were still allergic to sleep at that time!

There was also the issue of my mental health. Though it was largely on track save for the odd bump in the road along the way, the damage to my self-esteem and confidence was done many years ago; and I could never quite convince myself that I was clever or dedicated enough to complete a degree.

Even though my husband was, and still is, very supportive of my decisions, even his belief in my abilities wasn’t enough to completely convince me.  

Enrolling with the Open University, the process

So, I called student support to discuss what would happen if I decided to enrol at the OU, but later feel that it was too much for me. I was told that I could defer my course if I felt the need to.

Having no confidence in myself, and with the assurance that I had the option to defer, I signed up to study for a History Degree with the Open University at 29. My expectation was that I would drop out soon after the course started.

The process of enrolling with the Open University was easy enough. However, student finance was more of a faff, but I eventually got my application and all relevant identification sorted. The tuition fee loan and learning grant payments were all scheduled for my October start date.

In fact, the grant enabled me to quit my job. As that meant I wouldn’t have quite so much to juggle, I decided to study at full time intensity, completing the course in three years.

Studying History at the Open University, how was it? The beginnings

The first two level 1 modules were compulsory and designed to ease students back into studying. Although the scope of the modules covered several arts and humanities subjects, I was only anxious about studying music.

Due to the optional assignment questions, I was able to give music a wide berth. I thoroughly enjoyed the other topics. History was without doubt my favourite of the subjects. The level 1 courses merely cemented my certainty that I had chosen the right degree.

However, while studying at full time intensity meant that I could complete my degree in three years rather than six. The TMAs came thick and fast, with just two weeks between them all. I managed my time effectively, and was sure that I had submitted two decent first assignments for both modules. Nevertheless, I was disheartened to find I had scored 65% and 66% respectively.

I was a (mostly!) straight A student at school, so I was disappointed by my efforts. Feeling deflated, I decided to email my tutors to find out where I had gone wrong and what I could improve on. My AA100 tutor was incredible. I will never forget how supportive she was, even letting me call her to discuss how I could improve going forward and assuring me that my score was to be expected for a first TMA.

In the past this was the point where I would have doubted myself and thrown in the towel. However, she made me determined to better my score next time. Which to my surprise I did, with each TMA being better than the last.

“I had expected to feel overwhelmed with studying, but on the contrary, I thrived”

I completed my first year at the Open University with a high score of 90% and a distinction in AA100, and not far off one in A105. Actually, I had expected to feel overwhelmed with studying, but on the contrary, I thrived.

When it came to enrolling for level 2 modules, I was disappointed to find that yet again there was no choice, just two compulsory modules. The Early Modern Europe module (A223) appealed to me. It was indeed one of my favourites, but I was sure A225 with its more modern time frame would not whet my appetite at all.

I’m not wholly disinterested in modern history, but it does not inspire the passion in me that earlier time periods do. Those were my initial reservations about the level 2 modules; but to my surprise A225 was far more compelling than I would have thought. I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Dealing with unexpected challenges

It was during this year that I unfortunately came down with pneumonia. I had to submit special circumstance forms due to the serious nature of the illness and the long term fatigue it caused. It was also the same year that we were all plunged headlong into the depths of the first and devastating wave of Covid-19.

From March onwards I had to home school the children due to the lockdown. The OU cancelled all examinations, much to my relief as I have always hated the pressure of revising. However, I am the sort of person who needs complete silence to study, and only had the evenings to work in peace.

Nevertheless, these extra challenges did not hinder my motivation. I remained as determined as the year before to give it my all. Having eventually sussed out organising my time between assignments and the children’s bedtimes, I completed both modules with overall distinctions.

The level 2 modules make up a third of the overall degree classification. It was at the close of that academic year that I started to believe I really could complete this degree. I had aimed to finish with a 2:1 in the hopes of keeping the door open for potential postgraduate study.

Shaping a History Degree with the Open University: module choices

With Covid-19 keeping us locked down, and home schooling looking to be a real possibility for the foreseeable; I decided to pursue modules which had EMAs rather than exams as the finishing component. This did unfortunately limit my choices of module quite significantly.

However, one aspect of history that has always fascinated me is religion. So I decided to pursue A332 ‘Why is Religion controversial’. It was a fantastically diverse module with some really thought-provoking topics.

The other module I studied, and my absolute favourite, was A329 ‘The Making of Welsh History’. I was initially reluctant to do this module as all of the materials are online, and I am not the most technologically minded.

However, it was much easier to navigate than I had anticipated. It was invaluable in teaching us how to research subjects and the best places to look for both primary and secondary sources; especially now that so many of them have been digitised.

Open University flexibility, choosing a dissertation topic

We had pretty much free reign to choose our dissertation topic, so long as it was relevant to Welsh history. It was a refreshing change to be able to pursue a subject that I wanted to rather than one dictated by the University.

In the end I chose to write my dissertation entitled: ‘Henry Tudor – The homegrown hero who played the game of thrones and won. To what extent has the prince that was promised been viewed as a symbol of Welsh identity, both in a contemporaneous and modern context?’

Exploring his relevance as a national hero, both in his own time and modernity, was the first time I truly felt like a real historian. I loved every moment of researching and writing it.

I took a gamble with it. However, by making a small survey and posting it in social media, and though the results were interesting; I did not discuss my findings, nor how I came about them, in enough detail for this level of academia. So I was awarded an overall 78%.

I was sorely disappointed with myself for having missed out on having it published online by 2%; but nevertheless finished both level 3 modules with distinctions.

Successfully completing a History Degree with the OU

The day the results came through was one of the best days of my life. Not only had I successfully completed my degree, I had proven to myself that I could succeed! It would also stand as proof to my girls that you can study at a later date than straight out of school.

Instead of going to university, getting married and then having children, I had done those things completely backwards. I exceeded my expectations of completing the degree with a 2:1 to boot.

Accepting my classification of first class honours was an enormous boost not only to my CV, but to my confidence and self-esteem. I had gradually become certain of my own abilities, and wholeheartedly believe that if I put my mind to something, I can damn well do it.

Getting that degree was a huge personal fist pumping moment, and a big two fingers up to anyone who had ever put me down and compromised the value I placed on my own self-worth.

Thoughts on the Open University

I loved every moment of studying with the Open University. The support structure that is in place is incredible and asides from nurturing my abilities academically, I cannot thank the OU enough for what it has done for my mental health.

I started my degree as a lost soul not really knowing what path to follow in life. I had no confidence or motivation to achieve anything more than to be the best wife and mother I could be. This degree is something I have done for myself, to prove to myself that I can be more than what my mind would sometimes have me believe.

Before I enrolled, I didn’t really know who I was. However, now I feel that my time at the OU has allowed me to express and understand the real me. I am no longer that shell of a girl who didn’t think life was worth living; but a woman, a mother, a wife, a historian, a student and whatever else I decide to be in future.

I will forever be grateful for what the Open University has done for me, both on an academic and personal level.

Further studies and future plans

Following my graduation, I decided to pursue my studies. I am now one year into a two year distance learning masters with the University of Birmingham. Although I am enjoying it immensely, the renovation of the house and gardens is taking up a large portion of my time.

It hasn’t put me off, and though I may not have the time to dedicate to my studies that I did at undergraduate. I fully intend on completing the course, and may even go on to tackle a PhD in future too.

In all honesty I have no idea exactly what career I will go onto once I have finished my time at university; perhaps a role in the research field as this is something I enjoy immensely. But for the time being I will study just for me, because it is good for me in so many ways.

I attended my degree ceremony on May 27, 2022. It was amazing to see so many OU students going up on stage and getting the recognition they deserve. Students of the OU are incredible, simply because the vast majority of them study around other commitments, such as work or caring for children or relatives; or because they are unable to attend brick universities due to disabilities or mental health issues.

Hayley’s advice, pursuing a Degree with the Open University

My advice for anyone who is considering a qualification at the Open University, or indeed, still battling through their studies and facing any number of challenges and problems; is to believe in yourself because you can do this.

Getting to wear the cap and gown and get up on stage to realise your achievements is just so worth the struggle. It doesn’t matter if it takes you 3 years or 16 years, if you come out with a first or a third, just keep going and believe in yourself.

OU students are incredible, because we prove that convention doesn’t have to be the norm, and that it’s never too late to learn and better yourself. Distance learning is no mean feat! Even just completing a module proves that you have the resilience, determination and organisational skills that many people would only dream of having.

I hope my story might help inspire others to consider further education. In my case it, it quite literally changed my outlook on life, as well as potentially opening new doors for me in the future. My mental health is stable, and my confidence and self-worth has reached an all time high.

I can’t go back and tell my twenty-year-old self what I know today, but hope that by sharing the knowledge I have, I can help others in similar situations. Good luck!

Thank you Hayley!

Thank you Hayley for sharing your mature student story in such detail! Firstly, congratulations on completing a History Degree with the Open university, first class honours! Secondly, best of luck on your Masters, I’m sure you’ll shine!

More than anything though, I want to outline how you got your life back! Overcoming those life’s challenges with education, inspiring! Thank you again, I’m sure your story will help many “lost” people out there!

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