Empowered by degrees
Is there a typical mature student? Aileen Ballantyne speaks to fellow recent graduate Wendy Brooks, whose inspiring story perhaps runs contrary to stereotypes.
When Wendy Brooks started her new job after graduating with first-class honours in Community Education in July 2015, she closed a circle.
Wendy, a single parent in her forties, is now a carer support worker at an organisation that nearly a decade earlier had helped Wendy herself gain the confidence to re-enter the education system.
The only formal qualifications Wendy previously had were four O-Grades, after a difficult time during her school years.
“My mum and dad divorced when I was 11 and my dad became ill with depression for 18 months, so I was basically his carer for that period,” Wendy says.
“At my local comprehensive in Edinburgh I was the fat child with glasses who lived with just her dad – and we lived on benefits. That was how the other kids saw me. The fact that I was able to do academic stuff just meant that I was bullied into doing other people’s work. I gave up working hard then because I just wanted to disappear – I didn’t want to be noticed.”
Art was an interest that persisted, however. Wendy decided that she wanted to be the person who designed and created signs on vans and shops. “I told the careers officer at school. He said that wasn’t feasible and that I should just go and train as a florist. That wasn’t what I wanted to do – not at all.”
We all supported each other on that degree course. It was terrific.
On leaving school Wendy earned her living working in bars and restaurants. Later she became a page compositor – putting together newspaper pages by cutting and pasting columns of type and pictures, before the days of electronic page make-up. “I was working on the Evening News the night of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. It was a night I’ll never forget – and the one time I actually heard the words, ‘Hold the front page,’” Wendy says.
Today, working for VOCAL, Voice of Carers Across Lothian, it’s Wendy’s job to ensure that carers have the support and knowledge to access the help and benefits they need in their roles looking after parents, children and others.
Her university studies reflect her experiences in earlier life. An important part of her degree was a 12,000-word dissertation entitled ‘Hidden Injuries of Class and Gender’.
“When I was at school the girls did home economics for the first and second year while the boys did metalwork and woodwork. In a lot of ways things weren’t all that different from the way they were for my mother’s generation.
“The expectation was that the man would be out in the world making a living while the woman was at home budgeting to feed a family. There was basically no expectation about ‘getting on’ and progressing.”
Wendy had her son, Ethan, in her early thirties, and when he was six it became clear that he was having problems dealing with certain social situations and was diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome. Looking after her young son and dealing with his autism became Wendy’s full-time occupation.
It was during that period that Wendy became aware of VOCAL and the support it could give her. By the time Ethan was eight, Wendy’s ambition to work for a better life for herself and her son led her to study part-time for an HNC at Jewel and Esk College, now part of Edinburgh College. She gained an A grade, and decided to apply to the University of Edinburgh for a full-time degree, even though this meant taking on a loan.
When she was registering as a student in September 2010 Wendy went through her situation and financial details with “a young guy in the University Registry who was just incredibly helpful,” she says. “All I know is that his name was Joe, but I’ll never forget him.”
A month later she was contacted by the University and learnt she’d been selected for a £1,000-a-year bursary known as the Paul Meitner award. Wendy recently met Paul Meitner (MA Economics & History 1982). “He was in Edinburgh on business from his job in London. That £1,000-a-year bursary made all the difference to me – I was glad I was able to tell him that in person.”
Wendy’s degree took an extra year due to the illness and subsequent death of her father, John, who she says was the “father figure” in Ethan’s life. Losing his much-loved granddad just as he went into adolescence was particularly difficult for Ethan.
For Wendy, it was difficult to focus on her dissertation at that point, though she managed with the support of her University friends. “Three of my fellow students came to help me clear my father’s house when he died – we all supported each other on that degree course. It was terrific.”
Dr Jim Crowther, her dissertation supervisor, suggested she take a year out after her father’s death. “Having support and understanding like that made all the difference,” Wendy says.
Ethan, now 15, was with Wendy to celebrate her graduation. In spite of his autism he attends mainstream high school and excels in several subjects. “He hopes, one day, to be an architect,” says Wendy.
Wendy says her degree, and placements she undertook as part of it, were all about empowerment: empowerment of schoolchildren at Loanhead Primary in Edinburgh, and empowerment of young people and adults within their own communities. She says: “I’ve learned how to support others to empower themselves, to take control and move themselves forward.”
Dr Aileen Ballantyne
Dr Aileen Ballantyne (MA 1976, MSc 2009, PhD 2014) is an award-winning poet and former journalist.
Having worked as medical correspondent for both the Guardian and the Sunday Times, she returned to Edinburgh in 2008 to study creative writing, first at masters level and then completing her PhD in 2014. She now works as a tutor at the University of Edinburgh.
Aileen’s poetry has won a number of awards, including first prize in the 2015 Mslexia Poetry Competition for her series ‘Lockerbie, Pan Am Flight 103’, and first prize in the short poem category in the 2015 international Poetry on the Lake Festival at Isola san Giulio, Italy. She is currently finalising her first collection of poetry.