Stewart McKay
Nursing at Kilmarnock College 2009-10 :: UWS Mental Health Nursing (Graduated with distinction 2013)

Hello, my name is Stewart. I'm 52 years old and originally from Ayr.

I'm <stewart_mckay___2010kk___uwsmh2013.jpg> the youngest of three children. My father worked for the Daily Record as a reporter, and then later moved on to be a car salesman. My mother worked part-time in the theatre box office, selling tickets for the shows. 

Going to u
niversity was never talked about at home, as no one had ever done it before. My brothers and I just looked for apprenticeships when we left school. I'm the only one in my family that has ever been to university.

I enjoyed primary school, but I was a bit of a ‘jack-the-lad’ and never got interested in the academic side. I was more into playing football and things like that. Secondary school was okay. I left when I was 16 to start an apprenticeship as a bricklayer but I became disillusioned because there seemed to be a lot of academic stuff involved in that, too. Things like the density of bricks and stuff like that. I wanted to be out on the site and I was interested in the practical part, but not so much the thinking part! I left my apprenticeship after about a year and a half.

Believe it or not, by the time I was around 19 or 20, I had decided I wanted to be a paediatric nurse - but it just never worked out. By that time, I had met my future wife and we were trying to save up to get a mortgage so we could get married. I wanted a steady wage coming in, so I ended up taking a job at the local abattoir - and I worked there for the next 27 years!
  We did manage to get a mortgage, so we settled down to raise our kids. I just got busy with family life, going to work, earning a wage. But I always wanted to learn more. I regretted leaving school so early. I always knew I could do more.  

Then, I had a heart attack.

 <stewart_mckay_and_wife.jpg> Why did you return to education when you did?

My heart attack led to me leaving my job at the abattoir, which forced me to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. There were no more jobs available in my line of work and, anyway, I had decided I wanted to learn something new. Most of my wife's family are in health care - my wife and sister-in-law were nursing assistants and my other sister-in-law is a staff nurse. It was my wife who actually encouraged me to look at training to be a nurse. We knew that I would be able to get a bursary so I could learn something useful but at the same time I would have money coming in to pay the mortgage. I also worked part-time to make ends meet. 

My wife and I have two kids; our son is 29 this year and our daughter is 24; she just graduated last year with a nursing degree herself, and she is now working in Glasgow. Both of our children totally supported me and encouraged me to do it from the start, and they have been really supportive ever since.

What was it like going back into a classroom after so long?

I was the only guy in a class of 26 women, so it was kind of nerve-wracking walking in the first day. I just let all of the women do the talking, and nodded my head now and again! The lecturer had told me I would be the only guy in the class, but I wanted the place, so I didn’t let that put me off. I was very focussed; I really wanted to do it. And I settled in quickly. The other students on the programme were all very friendly and quite understanding; I think they knew how I must be feeling. We ended up being quite a close class. We all helped each other out with the work, and we socialised a bit, too. We had nights out and such. There were about half a dozen of us that all went to the same university campus, and I'm still in touch with a lot of people from my class. 

As for the academic side of things, I was really keen to study. I knew there would be psychology and sociology involved and I was keen to engage with it. I have always enjoyed writing, so doing essays and such didn't bother me.

How was the transition to university?

I was made Class Rep at university, which gave me an opportunity to meet up with my peers, attend meetings and go to student functions. It let me see how the university worked. The academic work was okay, too. It took a while to get used to referencing but it was fine in the end. You learn how to do it. I knew that university was going to be different from college. The college was very supportive and you were guided along. I knew that at university I would need to be more independent. As it turns out, there was lots of support at university but I knew that the responsibility for learning would be more on me. It was a bit of a transition but I was expecting it so I coped well.

It's important to remember that you are responsible for your own learning. Good time-management skills are absolutely imperative. You must organise your time and you really need some support to help you, too. Your family need to be willing to give you the time to do your reading, write your essays and study for exams, so if you have a house to look after or small children, you'll need to get family and friends behind you to help you cope.

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

I graduated in September 2013 from UWS with a BSc in Mental Health Nursing, with distinction. That was my goal from the start; I was determined to get it. I just worked really hard and made sure I had all my essays and assignments in on time. Towards the end of my course, I was putting in applications everywhere and I was fortunate enough to get a job at Combat Stress as a staff nurse. It's an intensive programme in a treatment centre for ex-veterans of the Army, RAF and Navy. They need one-to-one therapy for PTSD and its side-effects, such as anxiety, depression and anger management. I love the work that I do here.

My heart attack was a blessing in disguise really. If it hadn't happened, I would probably still be at the abattoir. Now I'm doing something I really love -- and that's me until I retire (as long as they'll have me)!

Any other comments?

The SWAP programme gave me the chance to do what I've always wanted to do so I will be eternally grateful for it. If you're going back into education, you'll need to be focussed and be willing to learn. There's a lot of learning involved and it can take you to stressful levels, but it's all in how you cope with it. Your time management skills will have to be good to get your assignments completed, but you can manage it and it's all worth it in the end. All of the students and the staff will be supportive of you. If you're motivated to do it, that's half the battle.


I once wrote my story for SWAP students when I was at Kilmarnock College. From my childhood through to my Nursing degree and my first job as a Band 5 nurse with Combat Stress.

Well 8 years on from creating that story, I can tell you I am still with Combat Stress and I am now interviewing for Deputy Head of Operations in Scotland at the end of this month, which is a Band 8 role. This has been achieved with the essential learning that started at College and my desire to be all I could be. Skills you sometimes take for granted or feel they don’t have an important part of your own personal journey are actually being developed and honed from an early stage of your SWAP journey.

I possess a passion for what I do and what I can offer in terms of supporting British war veterans through difficult adjustments to civilian life again and the mental health issues that prevail through the trauma they have experienced and witnessed.

Like your teachers, who possess the same passion for their students, my best advice to you all would be to possess the passion to succeed and create personal goals that will enrich not only your lives, but the people around you.

Let’s face it, my chosen field of mental health nursing will never make me a rich person, but it has given me so much more than monetary rewards as I know I have made a difference to so many lives by being caring, compassionate and empathetic to understand and support veterans in a positive manner. That is all the reward I need!!

Since my original story, I now have 4 young grandchildren who are the apple of my eye. I often wonder what kind of life I could have given them without making the commitment to the SWAP programme and going back to learning at 50 years of age.

The journey from Kilmarnock College has not been plain sailing but my destination has been enhanced by meeting so many passionate and dedicated people that have helped this old dinosaur get over the line with their friendship, knowledge and dedication to “being all I can be”.   

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