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Spotlight: Emma and Michael 'return to school' for UCP degrees

There are many of us who get an urge at some point in their lives to 'go back to school', and achieve qualifications that they never managed the first time or try something completely new.
Em Michael
Emma and Michael

There are many of us who get an urge at some point in their lives to 'go back to school', and achieve qualifications that they never managed the first time or try something completely new. 

In the case of mum-of-three Emma Nicholls family life came along in her teens - but now, more than a decade on, she's returned to studying, in the form of a Psychosocial Studies degree at University Centre Peterborough.

What's more, she's inspired husband Michael, who left school without a single qualification to do the same, and he is due to start Biological Sciences at UCP as well.

Both have completed an Access to HE courses at Peterborough Regional College and both had to gain level 2 qualifications with Michael also completing the Pre-Access course. 

When Peterborough Matters met Emma, at the end of her second year, she was preparing for her dissertation - more than a decade on from initially leaving education behind.

Her family moved to Benidorm in her teens, and had to repeat year 10 when they moved back to England. Soon after she had her son, who is now 13. 

By the time she had had her third child, she realised that she had an ambition to go back to school and then ultimately university: "I'd had my kids, and now I wanted to further my career.

"So I went to Peterborough Regional College, and applied for the Access to Higher Education Humanities and Social Sciences course, but I needed my level 2 English - and had two months to get it.

"I got it, just before we went on a holiday, and then got on the access course for a year which gave me a lot of experience and confidence.

"I used to give up when things got hard, but after passing my GCSE science I realised I could go further.  

"Access then gave me the equivalent of my A Levels. I really got into psychology, my teacher Elizabeth was amazing and so I applied to UCP and got on."

Living in Stanground, the family knew that Emma needed to be in Peterborough, and having met the lecturers already through her access course it seemed a natural fit to apply to UCP.

"I saw the building and realised there were not so many people and I would be able to get more 1-1, which was important because I had been out of education for so long."

Juggling studying and home life has not been easy - two of the couple's children have additional needs.

"It's been hard, but the children have been able to go to an after-school club which has been mostly paid for by student finance, who have been absolutely amazing.

"I'm a planner so I make sure everything is in the right place. If you're fully prepared, and you know that one has swimming today and one has packed lunch or something like that, you can make time to do work in the evening and attend university on the days I need to."

As a mature student, Emma's tuition fees have been covered by student finance, and she has also had a maintenance loan and Parent Support Allowance - you can find out more about the process in the video below.

Her tutors, and student support, have been 'amazing', pushing her to get through difficult times such as when her children were poorly. The 1-1 classes have enabled a personal touch, which has been invaluable.

They recognise that Emma has put in the hard work to even get where she is now, gaining work experience through volunteering with CPFT NHS,  and as a research assistant at HMP Whitemoor where her enthusiasm shone through even though they were looking for someone who had completed their degree.

She's now planning to be a ppsychologist, possibly in developmental psychology, and then perhaps a doctorate in forensic or clinical psychology.

Michael, meanwhile, will begin his studies next month, having left school at 13 and went onto the Link programme to learn life skills, which is where he first became interested in mechanics.

After working in that field for several years he then gained some formal qualifications, and then realised he had a taste for learning again.

He wanted to pursue a career in science but knew he needed some additional qualifications - the pre-access course gave him the equivalent of the GCSEs necessary.

He said: "I completed that, and got student of the month three years in a row and student of the year, which surprised me.

"The teachers then encouraged me to go for Higher Access, and I thought ok - it was a good challenge and my chemistry teacher said I was a natural chemist, which was a surprise because I don't really like chemistry!

"But I was a really good biologist so I am going on to do this course, and I'm really looking forward to it."

Emma 1

Michael's aim is to become an immunologist specialist, or perhaps working in the field of virology - something he has been interested in long before the world had heard of Covid. 

On that theme, staff at UCP helped Michael online during the application during the lockdowns, with seminars on applications and UCAS and 1-1 sessions. 

Peterborough Matters asked what the 13-year-old Michael would think of his upcoming course.

"All I wanted to do then was hang about with my mates. I wasn't interested in school.

"Just to get to the level I am now, and doing my GCSEs, has been a struggle and if I'd stuck at it when I was younger I'd now be 20 years ahead of myself. 

"But it's never too late. On my higher access course there were those who had just left school, but also some in their 50s who wanted to come back. We also had someone who had been to university, decided they didn't like their study, and decided to change course."

"Seeing the work my wife was doing - she was inspirational, and I liked the look of the challenge. She is achieving, and the payout at the end of her hard work is her reward."

Emma added: "I've seen younger people at university and there's no difference between me and them; I just had my kids early, and now I'm putting my career out there.

"You can do it at any point. I have thought at times that maybe I'm too old and my brain wouldn't be able to take things in, but you amaze yourself. Maybe having children means that I want to do better for them, and show them they can do it as well.

"It keeps you going - it's hard, but I wouldn't change it at all."