Anyone looking for an inspirational start to the New Year could do no better than to attend Donegal VEC’s Adult Learner Fair 2013, where Donegal GAA Manager Jim McGuinness will be delivering a keynote address about his own adult education journey. The popular event, now in its tenth year, will also showcase more than 60 organisations offering information about education, training opportunities, and learning supports that are available for learners from basic education through to third level.
The fair will take place on Friday, January 25, from 11am to 3.30 pm at the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny. Jim McGuinness’s address, which will run from 11a.m. to 12.30 pm, will include a discussion of suggested steps for other adults to follow on their own paths.
“We are really pleased to have Jim McGuinness speaking at the fair, not just because of his fantastic success with the Donegal GAA team but also because he started his own adult education journey with Donegal VEC,” said Sean Debney, Donegal VEC Adult Learner Guidance Service Co-ordinator. “He’s someone who’s been through adult education and been incredibly successful, so there will be a lot of inspiration to take from his story.”
Participants in the fair will have the opportunity to combine the inspiration gained from Jim McGuinness’s speech with access to information about education and training opportunities in areas of particular interest.
“It’s a one-stop shop,” Mr. Debney said. “Everybody you need to talk to will be under one roof, including Department of Social Protection representatives with information about financial supports for unemployed people who are returning to education. Particularly with the current economic situation, where people are trying to find their way, change careers, and make significant life changes, this event is about providing the advice, information and encouragement that they need to get themselves back on track.”
Donegal VEC staff members will be available at the fair to provide information about the education and training options that are available with the VEC. The Donegal VEC Adult Learner Guidance Service staff will also be on hand to offer advice and guidance. “A lot of people are having to make difficult transitions now,” said Dearbhla Kelly, Donegal VEC Adult Guidance Counsellor. “Maybe they were in construction, architecture, or retail, and find themselves needing to reassess their careers and their identities. The fair is a perfect opportunity for people to put themselves in a new direction hrough
new courses, new ideas, and new visions for themselves.”
Five Donegal residents who have returned to education with the help of Donegal VEC spoke enthusiastically about the new directions their lives have taken as a result.
Taking the first step
Returning to education is well worth doing, no matter what one’s previous experience of school might have been, according to sisters Agnes and Sadie Hetherington, who live in Raphoe. The women recently completed a FETAC Level 5 Pre-Nursing course at Donegal VEC and are now applying to nursing degree programmes.
“Back when we were in school, everyone left to work in the factory,” said Agnes, 29, who is a mother of five. “A lot of those people are now at home, jobless and with no education. They need to stop putting themselves down and consider taking the first step back into education. Once they take that first step, there are so many people who are willing to help.”
“I left school at 14,” said Sadie, 31, who is a mother of three.
“I thought I’d never go back, but now I’m back and I love it. You understand more because of the life experiences that you’ve had. The more education you get, the bigger you feel in yourself.”
Agnes and Sadie’s adult education journey began when they responded to an ad for carers at a homecare agency in Letterkenny. “We went for an interview and asked the employer what qualifications we would need to work for him,” Sadie said. “He said, ‘I’m all for giving people a chance,’ and told us he would hire us as care support workers on the condition that we did a FETAC Level 5 course at the same time.
In fairness, if he hadn’t given us that opportunity, we wouldn’t be as far as we are.”
The sisters’ research into suitable courses led them to Donegal VEC’s Adult Learner Guidance Service, where they learned about a Pre-Nursing course being offered by the VEC.
“Our tutor on the course was Lucia Ramsey and she was fantastic,” said Agnes. “I didn’t think I had the skills for the academic end; I felt I wasn’t smart enough. If you weren’t the teacher’s favourite in school it was easy to get that impression. As it turned out, we both finished with eight distinctions! I’m so glad I put the effort in to get them.”
Both women encouraged other parents to consider returning to education, citing the positive effect that their own return has had on their children. “My wains had all been following the track of leaving school early, but my return to education has given them direction and now they’re saying, ‘When I grow up I’m going to college,’” Sadie said.
“If anything, it’s better for you to get back to education to show your kids you can do it and they can, too,” Agnes said. “There’s nothing nicer than seeing your kids feel proud of you.”
Not just a number
Learning about something that interests you makes all the difference, according to Letterkenny resident Darren Duffy, who will complete a two-year Leaving Cert course with Donegal VEC in June and plans on continuing his education afterwards.
“When I was in secondary school, I wasn’t interested in anything I was doing,” said Darren, 22. “Now I’m doing what I want to do and have lots of ideas running through my head about what to do next. A few months ago I wanted to go on to do graphic design, but now I’m thinking it will be something in forensic science or computers.”
Darren’s return to education began when his girlfriend encouraged him to apply for a Leaving Cert course at Donegal VEC. “I said, ‘Aye, I’ll apply for it, but with my story they won’t take me on at all,’” he recalled. ‘I came in to talk with the VEC VTOS Co-ordinator even though I was terrified. I told her me whole story, about how I’d done my Leaving Cert but had failed. She said, ‘No bother, we’re starting a course in September.’”
Darren said his experience on the course has been hugely positive. “You’re not just a number at the VEC, somebody cares,” he said. “You’re encouraged to ask questions and your questions get answered. The class I’m in now, you couldn’t get a better group of people. I’m not looking forward to leaving. Even the teachers are invited to our class parties. They really try to get the best out of you.”
Darren said he’d urge adults of any age to consider returning to education. “I thought there’d be barriers, but there’s not,” he said. “The Leaving Cert is a tough programme, but if you keep your head down, you’ll get through it. As regards an education, you’re never too old to learn.”
Advantages to being a mature student
The life experiences that adults have accumulated are a huge advantage to them as students, according to Letterkenny resident Deirdre Clarke, who recently graduated from a three-year nursing degree programme at University of Ulster-Magee.
“I came in to the Donegal VEC Adult Learner Guidance Service and had three guidance sessions with Dearbhla because although I knew I wanted to do nursing, I didn’t know how to go about applying for it as a mature student,” said Deirdre, 51, who is a mother of six. “The guidance sessions gave me the courage and information I needed to take the first step. I believe that sometimes all you need is someone to believe in you.”
Deirdre’s return to education started with an Access course at North West Regional College in Derry. “The course prepared me academically, as I wasn’t sure I’d be fit to do a nursing degree,” she said. “As I progressed through the course, I got hungrier and hungrier for the grades. I worked hard and came out of the nursing degree programme with first-class honours. I found that being a mature student was an advantage, particularly having reared children. Nursing put me in situations where I had to dress and wash people, and it also gave me responsibilities that I mightn’t have been able to handle when I was younger.”
Deirdre said education became a real family affair when she was writing her dissertation as her son was doing his Junior Cert and her daughter was doing her Leaving Cert. “A lot of the studying I did was a help and an encouragement to them,” she said. “My daughter is now in medical school!”
Deirdre’s own educational dreams have also been fulfilled. “At the end of my degree I had six interviews in one week, so the jobs are there,” she said. “I have since been offered a one-year contract with the Health Service. I’m delighted. It can be very surreal to wake up and think, ‘I’m a nurse now!’”
New lease of life
Returning to education can add a wonderful new dimension to one’s life, according to Ballybofey resident Peter Carr, who is currently enrolled in a Health and Welfare Access course as preparation for doing a degree in social work.
“When I was 15 I was offered an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery and didn’t hesitate to accept it,” said Peter, 45, who is a father of one. “I was a carpenter in London for seven or eight years, but then had an accident which left me unable to return to carpentry professionally. After my rehabilitation, I retrained in business administration and got a job in that field, but after 7 ½ years I gave it up to move here for a better quality of life.”
It was the closure of a discount store that Peter had opened in Ballybofey that led him to explore returning to education. ”I knew about the VEC and wanted to find out about courses, but was hesitant to do anything about it,” he said. “Then one day I just plucked up the courage and went in to see Dearbhla. It was an amazing interview. Going in, my mind was muddled up about what I wanted to do, but after one hour I came out with a sense of direction. One week later I knew what I wanted to do: social work with a focus on working with and empowering disabled people. I have worked as a volunteer with adults with learning disabilities in the past and felt a huge sense of satisfaction by giving something back.”
Peter’s next step was to begin attending an Access course at the North West Regional College in Strabane. “I haven’t looked back,” he said. “It’s as though my mind has been completely opened up again, learning about health care, social policy and other things I’m really interested in. To anyone who’s looking to get back into education, I would say ‘Go for it!’ It has given me a new lease of life. I would also encourage people to avail of the assistance that’s available from Donegal VEC. I feel very thankful for the support that the staff there provided to me.
Donegal VEC and a wide range of other educational, training, and support organisations will be available to provide assistance to everyone who attends the Adult Learner Fair 2013 on Friday, January 25, from 11 am to 3.30pm at the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny. For more information, please ring the Donegal VEC Adult Learner Guidance Service on (074) 917 8088.