Studying for a degree as a carer was the biggest challenge of my life. I was pushed to my limits as I fought to juggle the two. That being said, it was a great and fulfilling experience. The pressure was worth it. Apart from the qualification, I found new direction, ambitions and I learnt about my about capabilities.
No two experiences of caring and studying will be the same. One thing is certain however, whilst it will be an enormous challenge, it's not impossible. If you're willing to fight for it, there's no reason why being a carer should exclude you from going to university. Young, old, man, woman; it doesn't matter. You can do it and thrive in the process.
Listed below are some of the key lessons I learnt which helped me to thrive as a student carer.
1. Keep up contact with your University
Keeping a running conversation open with your university, about your caring responsibilities, is an extremely important first step. The earlier this dialogue is opened, the better.
If your university know your circumstances, they can be flexible and accommodating to what you need. Lectures and university staff want to see you succeed and will most likely be happy to help you along the way. That could mean anything from looking the other way when your attendance is poor, giving you extensions when you need them, or sending the odd email to check your progress. You might not need the help, but it's best to have a plan in place just in case you ever do. These things can make the world of difference, but they can't do anything if they don't know about the situation.
Most universities are full of fun and interesting societies and sport clubs which offer a whole range of opportunities. You'll want to grasp them all. It's important, however, to be realistic and not over burden yourself. You'll never be able to do all the things that the average students can do. They won't have your responsibility and time restraints. I tried to do everything, and I quickly burned out. You can only keep so many balls in the air before they come crashing down around you.
It's better, and more fulfilling, to prioritise the one thing that matters most to you. Think about what's most important to you and pursue it. Concentrate on that one activity, hobby or ambition, and you will flourish.
3. Maintain a balance in your life
No matter who you are, you can't spend all of your time caring and working without consequences. You need to make time for rest, fun and friendships. It's a necessity, not an optional extra.
Success will come from working hard and knowing when to rest. Not from working yourself into the ground. You might feel like you don't have the time, but anything is better than nothing. You need to invest in yourself, even if it's only ten minutes a day.
4. Be kind to yourself
You are not defined by a bad grade and you shouldn't be hard on yourself if you don't always reach your potential. Nobody's at their best all of the time. Sometimes caring responsibilities take over, leaving you without time for your studies. There's little you can do about that.
I had to learn to let go of disappointments, or risk being dragged down by them. No good ever came from dwelling on disappointments. It wastes time and energy. Forgive yourself quickly and let disappointments roll off your back.
5. Look after yourself
Carers are often focused on looking after their dependent and completely forget about to look after themselves. If you're struggling to keep up with your studies then doing things for yourself might be the last thing on your mind, but it's important that you don't neglect your own wellbeing. Your health is important too.
Ignoring your own wellbeing is an unsustainable way to live and university is a long term challenge. If you want to finish this marathon you're going to have keep yourself in good physical and mental health.
I ignored looking after myself for a long time. I ignored all the warning signs. Eventually, my physical and mental health deteriorated, which led to me re-sitting a year of study. I could have saved myself the extra year if I had only taken a few hours a week to prioritise my own wellbeing.
6. Celebrate your achievements (especially the small ones)
It's vital to recognise, celebrate and remember what you achieve on a daily basis. This is how you stay positive and motivated in the tough days, when you feel like you're drowning. Draw on what you've achieved in the past to encourage you in the present.
Celebrate your daily victories and recognise that achievement is subjective. At times you might feel like you're not achieving anything, but by shifting your perspective you'll see that's just not true. Whilst for many students attending lectures wouldn't be considered much of an achievement, for you it might be. When you have someone wholly depending on you most things become more difficult.
I found that I remembered my disappointments far better than I did my achievements so I started to record my achievement. I could turn to this journal of achievements when I needed encouraging. I recorded everything from attending lectures, to achieving good grades, to making time to spend with friends. It was an important tool for keeping me positive and my mind healthy.