Trying to stay on top of deadlines is difficult for many students, but even more so with a baby to look after. This week LS talks to Kathleen Van Geete, a mother of two, about how being a mother spurred her on to get a degree.
What made you decide to want to go into higher education and was it a tough decision?
In October 2010 whilst travelling on my own in California I discovered I was pregnant with an ex-boyfriend’s child. I had intended to travel for the year and eventually volunteer in Guatemala, but once I discovered I was pregnant I had to make some big decisions and I decided that either way I would need to be in the UK.
I wasn’t particularly close to my family at the time and I didn’t want to be surrounded by all the friends I had with my ex-boyfriend, so I picked a point on a map, and ended up in Leeds. Once back in England I decided that I would raise my child myself, there was never a question over whether or not I would give birth, I had been raised partly Catholic and as one of six siblings, so to myself life begins at conception. I got a job working in an office in Leeds city centre and worked full time until my eighth month of pregnancy.
I had always planned to go to university, but every time I applied, I had gotten distracted with prospects of travel; I went to live in Paris for a little while and travelled parts of South-East Asia, and then went to the US.
I applied the year before the fees were hiked up. The increasing of university fees for single parents, young pregnant girls and essentially low income students, despite fees still being funded by student finance, can mean that decisions to go into higher education can be harder.
As a single parent of a three month old baby, starting university must have had its challenges. What would you say was the hardest thing about studying and looking after a young child?
Managing workloads, everyone has to tackle it, but the most stressful thing about doing it with a small baby is that you can plan so far in advance, do everything to the tee and then they get sick, or they have a bad week and it sets you back because you have to spend the week clutching a bawling child. I was alone and completely inexperienced in the whole matter, so it was a lot to adapt and adjust to.
What support did you receive from the university? Are there special support systems in place for mature students?
Of course. My lecturers and tutors have all been stunning. There is the really supportive society as well though, who arrange get-togethers and cafes, and the Student Service Centre and Financial Aid team have both have been essential to my support and the
Student Support Office of the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies have been both patient and caring. I would like to see more psychological support available in the future though.
Many students find it hard financially supporting themselves on their student loan. Have you found the financial side of things difficult?
Definitely. It actually got much worse once I got married, we had to fight harder with student finance to get financed for childcare, my husband was on a low income wage and we had two children we needed to put into nursery to cover my lectures and time for me to write essays. It costs about £100 for two children to go to nursery for a full day. We have them in nursery for two and a half days a week, that’s £1,100 a month.
You say you had another child while at university. What systems were in place for this? Was your education temporarily suspended?
I fell pregnant with my second son – planned (I know you’re all thinking it) – in about May 2012. We had timed it so that I would be able to continue my degree without interruption. You don’t need to tell me how crazy we were; but it made more sense at the time, to have both our children whilst I was around partly in the week rather than in a full time job.
I returned to my office job in the Summer of 2012 and worked full time again, until the beginning of November (I worked 4-11pm during the first month and a half that university resumed in). I handed all my first semester essays in just after Christmas and had an exam to attend two days before my due date, so it seemed to pan out perfectly. Unfortunately my second son had some sort of intuition, and I went into labour at 10pm the night before my exam.
I sat through a night of contractions timing them vigilantly, at around 2am they slowed down to one every 20 minutes, I got a bit of sleep and woke up to contractions every six minutes or so at 6am. I warn you now I am incredibly stubborn. My exam was at 9 am, and my contractions hadn’t sped up, so I decided to go into university and risk my water breaking all over the exam room. The university had organised for me to have a special chair in a smaller exam room, so despite the 10 or so contractions I was fairly comfortable. I completed my exam in 55 minutes, asked to leave and went home to continue labour, I gave birth at 1.22pm, 20 minutes after arriving in the hospital.
I went back to university nine days after I gave birth, I took my son to my first lecture back and perhaps the second, I can’t remember, but then my heavenly mother-in-law arrived from Australia.
Were you given some sort of maternity leave after giving birth?
I opted out of taking any time out of university, because I was not aware of the situation regarding student loan/ fees extensions etc. Though I was made aware I could take time out if necessary.
How do you think being a mother of two has affected your education?
If I weren’t a mother and attended university I would definitely get a first, but if I hadn’t become a mother, I wouldn’t have applied to university before the fee increase, and I wouldn’t have attended with the threat of a £30000 + loan. So yes, having my children encouraged me to get a degree at the right time.
What are your plans for the future?
Unfortunately, the field I would like to get into requires a lot of voluntary experience, or low paid employment, and that I just cannot afford to do with nursery fees so high. So I may have to go back into an evening office job until my children are in school. My husband is German and works for a company that has opportunities in Europe, so I will be definitely teaching myself German in the coming months after university. Though I have recently discovered I have a penchant for illustrating, and would like to work on that further and see if I can make something of it.
What advice would you give someone who would be classed as a mature student thinking about going into higher education?
It is possible. I have actually made a lot of connections with other women studying across the country through forums and social media and take time to try to encourage and support them. It is unbelievably hard though. I have spent so much of the past three years utterly exhausted, mentally, physically and above all emotionally. It takes its toll; you have to develop a really thick skin and just work through the pain.