Paula Christie
Clydebank College 2008-9 (Humanities) * University of Glasgow MA (Hons) 1st Class * Currently working towards PhD

I'm Paula, 38, and live just outside Helensburgh. I left school and applied for university around 1993. I was the oldest of five siblings and the first to attend university. My mum was a housewife, and my dad worked in a local factory. Neither of my parents had attended university, and they were very keen for me to do so. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but felt that going to university was really the only option available to me as otherwise I'd be letting people down. All of my friends had applied and I was good at school, so my parents and teachers wouldn't have expected me to do otherwise.

What was school like for you?

I enjoyed school and left with 5 Highers at AAABC grades. I was good at English and languages and enjoyed Modern Studies. I hated Maths and Science and struggled with these subjects. I think that I enjoyed the subjects I was good at and gave up easily on subjects I found more challenging. I didn't really plan a career...maybe something in TV or primary teaching I thought. In the end I applied for an English course at university to keep my parents and teachers happy. I remember feeling under a lot of pressure at this time to go to university.

What did you do after school?

I started at university, but felt I struggled. I was in the wrong course, I knew no one and I was really miserable. Life seemed difficult so I left my course and left home. I applied to a local bank and worked as a cashier. I was later promoted to the role of Financial Adviser. I married and had 2 children.  In 2003 my husband was offered work in Shetland, and we left the Glasgow area to work there for five years.

What led you to return to education when you did?

We moved back to the mainland as my dad had just died, and my younger sister became ill with breast cancer in 2008. I had two small children and my husband was in a low paid job. No suitable position within the bank in Glasgow was available at this time. I also felt that my life was becoming less and less fulfilling. I had taken on a part-time job taking in ironing for a private ironing service earning the minimum wage. Whilst ironing I heard a radio advert for my local college encouraging people to re-train and return to education. I felt that I was capable of achieving something more with my life, and that applying for a college course may help turn things around and give me a new focus and new opportunities. I applied the next day and received an interview soon after.

What was your SWAP programme like?

I was lucky to be taken on as places were limited. I had also been to university albeit it for a very short period, and the college were keen to take on students with little or no qualifications. However, the course co-ordinator was happy with my interview and keen to give me a second chance. My Highers were 'out of date' as I had sat them more than five years ago and therefore couldn't have gotten into university without the SWAP programme. I don't feel that I've ever forgotten that I was extremely fortunate to get this chance, and I was keen to make the most of it.

I loved getting back into study, and although I thought I may proceed to primary school teaching, my course supervisor encouraged me to think about a Social Science course at university. I loved the Humanities modules and performed well. We worked on a module based around the French Revolution which was fantastic. I also found that subjects such as Maths and Computing which I had found difficult at school, and had really written off as something I couldn't do, began to make more sense and my grades were good. A placement at a primary school as part of the course also convinced me that I may be happier to move onto a Social Sciences course at uni rather than applying for primary teaching. I felt the primary school environment didn't really suit, and that I would be more engaged with a different course.

Although I did make some good friends at college, there were a few issues with the wider group as a whole. Some students were much younger and less prepared to study. Some students were extremely keen; however had personal issues that prevented them from continuing with their course. Also there were no males in our group, and some 'cliques' did open up. As a thirty something student at that time I must admit I did find this difficult, and I did pull back from the group a little more in order to stay on track. I really didn't want to be distracted from getting a place at uni. In hindsight, this maybe made me seem insular to some, but the friends I made have remained friends. We often worked in groups and supported each other in projects and study groups.

The college staff were fantastically helpful and supportive. I felt I received constructive feedback and encouragement. I am still in touch with my course supervisor, and we meet maybe every 6 months to chat about my progress through university. The college atmosphere was very different to school and I feel gave me an excellent foundation for moving on to university. College was relaxed, less formal and the modules were more varied than school.

At the end of the SWAP programme, I really felt that I had achieved something and that I had a real plan on moving life forwards. What a difference a year had made! I left with the maximum AAA grade, but I think that the experience overall was as important as the grades I made. I learnt more about what I really wanted from life, and felt more equipped to move onto university than I thought possible. I also learned from some of the more negative experiences, such as the fracturing of the wider group. I was less distracted by contentious group dynamics than I may have been as a school leaver. My initial plan to apply for primary teaching had completely altered, and I had gained a new interest in History and Politics. I also believe the course gave me the confidence and basic tools to successfully navigate my way through my degree.

What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?

I graduated in 2013 with first class honours, which was beyond my wildest expectations. I applied for, and won, a highly competitive 5 year scholarship programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which allows me to complete my Masters, and a PhD as a fully funded and supported post grad student at Glasgow University. I haven't forgotten how fortunate I was to get a chance to return to education and change my life. As such, I'm also working as a Top Up Tutor with the Wider Access Programme at Glasgow University. This role is dedicated to helping students from various backgrounds gain entrance to university by offering a supported programme of study. This is really beneficial for students from families where perhaps attending university is not traditional and is less encouraged. I feel my experience has really made we want to connect with and encourage others into a university career. I really enjoy this role. I plan to complete my PhD in Central and East European Studies and perhaps follow an academic career. I still can't quite believe this is even a possibility!

Other comments?

I have, without exaggeration, LOVED my time at university, and am so grateful to the SWAP programme for setting me on my way. I now have a real passion for Central and East European Studies which was in no small part due to my Humanities modules in History and Politics taken at college. I'm so glad that I heard that radio advert, and would encourage anyone from any age or background to grab the chance of getting into learning. It really has completely changed my life. It has also been difficult for me at and family issues have been hard to work through on top of my studies. However I have had tremendous support from staff at college, and onwards through the Student Support and Financial Aid Teams at university. There's always someone to help! All you have to do is ask!
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