Despite her hard work and commitment, Zoe Pardoe, 31, found school a struggle and felt written off by her teachers. Resigned to the idea she wasn’t bright enough to go into higher education, she left school at 16 and took a job working in her local supermarket.
But when her friends started going off to university, Pardoe felt she was missing out. She harboured a dream of one day working with autistic children and couldn’t shake the niggling feeling she was capable of more – but lacking in confidence, she felt unsure about higher education.
It was only when her friends told her about The Open University, which would enable her to study part-time from home, one course at a time, that she finally saw an opportunity to change her life.
Taking things one step at a time, Pardoe began by signing up for a for an introductory module – but thanks to her determination, and the unwavering support of the tutors at the OU, she graduated six years later with an honours degree in psychology.
During that time, Pardoe got divorced, remarried, moved house twice and was diagnosed with dyslexia and epilepsy – proving that even when life takes unexpected turns, the OU is the perfect place to balance life and study.
When did you start thinking about going back into education?
After school I took a job working in a supermarket. They were nice people and I enjoyed it but it wasn’t how I saw the rest of my life. So when all my friends started going off to Uni, it was quite disheartening. I’d look at the pictures they posted on Facebook and I knew it was something I wanted to do.
What was holding you back?
I just didn’t feel that I was equipped for the basics, and I didn’t think I was bright enough. I went through school feeling that I was thick and that everybody had a key that I didn’t have – and that really affected my confidence.
Then, when I was married and had been working for a while, I used that as a good excuse not to challenge myself. I needed a roof over my head and to be able to pay the bills so how could I study?
What was the push that made you change you mind?
My friends Gemma and Ian, who were studying at York University, mentioned it was possible to do a degree while studying part-time from home with The Open University. Some of their courses at York used Open University textbooks so I had a look through and I had no trouble reading through that structure at all. I wanted to work with children with autism so I went onto the OU website to see what courses they had in the area of childcare.
What appealed to you about The Open University?
The way The Open University structures things is fabulous. It appealed to me that you are able to do it in small steps. I didn’t have to announce to everyone: ‘I’m going away to university. I’m going to be doing a degree.’ I could just take it one step at a time. So I decided to give it a go, course by course.
What course did you begin with?
I started with an openings course. This is like an introductory course that eases you into things. It was structured really nicely. You had different things to do each week and got feedback along the way. The tests were multiple-choice and you could contact your tutors if you needed any help. This really built up my confidence and made me realise it wasn’t as dreadful as I thought it was going to be.
What support did you get from The Open University?
I was given fabulous tutors for every course. They would go over ideas and concepts and help me if I was struggling. Sometimes they’d email me to share documents or information they thought I might find useful. It ended up being a bit of a friendship with some of them because of our shared interest in autism. I was able to call them and get much quicker responses than my friends who were at bricks-and-mortar universities. I also felt they really appreciated the challenge it can be to do a degree part-time.
What prompted one of your tutors to recommend a dyslexia test?
Halfway through my studies, I was really struggling with a particularly challenging course that had lots of fabulously complex words. I told my tutor I was having to read my course book over and over again and that it was taking me eight weeks to write an essay, with two people spell checking it. When he saw I’d drawn pictures down the sides of all the pages in my book and highlighted lots of the text, he asked me to send him a final draft of an essay before it had been spell checked and asked me if I’d ever been diagnosed with dyslexia. It was something I’d thought about but I’d never looked into it and how it affects people – or the fact there are strategies you can use to manage it. The OU gave me a helpline number to call, which led to me getting tested. When I was finally diagnosed, it was a real turning point. Suddenly, it all clicked into place why I’d struggled so much at school – and without my tutor mentioning it I would never have known.
How did this ‘lightbulb moment’ affect the rest of your study?
I saw an educational psychologist who explained that I didn’t need to waste time re-reading my textbook eight times. She taught me how to pick out key bits. I’m a visual learner and draw pictures – so the little drawings I did when I was really struggling, I now do all the time. My course books are full of doodles and silly little rhymes – and colours, lots of different colours and colour-coordinated chapters. Thanks to all these strategies, I went from struggling along to getting 84% in my final degree.
You were also diagnosed with epilepsy during your studies. How did The Open University support you with this?
Being diagnosed with epilepsy came as a complete shock to me – although it made sense as I’d been having windows of time where I was blocking out. When I told OU I had been diagnosed they sent someone to assess me at work – something mainstream universities don’t do. I was petrified but he was lovely and it quickly dawned on me he was there to help me get everything I possibly could to get me through the degree – and that was fabulous.
The assessment resulted in me having a computer, reading programmes and an extra 45 minutes in my exams. I could also start going to residentials because they gave me a budget to bring somebody with me – and because I was having night seizures, I was able to bring my husband along. It was all about how they could make it easier for me rather than telling me what would make it easier.
How did you find juggling your studies with work and a busy life?
I would set time aside each week. On a Tuesday and Thursday, I didn’t have to work late so I’d study then. Then Sunday was catch-up time. Luckily for me, once I was diagnosed with epilepsy and dyslexia, I got a reading programme; lots of the books were on disc so that really helped.
On top of the dyslexia and epilepsy diagnoses and juggling work, I also moved house twice, got divorced, remarried and was living with two stepchildren with autism. With so much going on in my life, I’d definitely have had to quit without the support of the OU.
Did you find distance learning isolating?
Quite the opposite: the whole support network was amazing. I met fellow students through tutorials, residential schools and the closed Facebook groups set up on the course modules. In fact, I’m still in contact with many of them today.
How has your experience at The Open University changed your life?
I’m massively more confident than I was before thanks to The Open University. I realise I’m not dumb like I thought I was. In fact, I’m quite bright – I just think differently. The Open University also gave me the confidence to apply for a job working in a special needs school – and since graduating, to go for the job role I’ve just been promoted to. It’s a higher level teaching assistant, which involves helping children who can’t verbally communicate, to communicate using technology, which is fantastic.
What are your plans for the future?
My bosses want to put me through my teacher training, which I’ll start in the next two years. But, for now, I want to slow down and not do too much – just for another year. After my teacher training, I’d like to become a teacher or maybe one day start my own business looking after children with autism. I thought I’d be stuck at the supermarket forever more but now I’ve got a door that was never there before.
What advice would you offer to someone who is in the same position as you were before you embarked on your studies?
Take the jump! But don’t think I’m doing a course for six years to get a degree – just take it one course at a time. Have the confidence to do that – and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re struggling because they are fantastically supportive at the OU..
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