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Tangled up in blue; all robed up with a place to go

St Georges Day 2016 at the Barbican, the end of a stage in a journey I started in 1965, the final part driven by 3 ladies, two of whom were present to witness my graduation.

Harold Wilson was Prime Minister when in 1965 I first heard of university as I started senior school, our High Master read out the leavers destinations, Oxford, Cambridge, London and 'others' amounting to virtually 100% of school leavers heading to university. It was what was expected and in 1972 off I went with an unconditional place to read Electronics at Bangor, only around 5% of school leavers went to university in those days. Harold Wilson 'set up' the OU during my period at school in 1969.

Those were heady days at university out of the sixties into the seventies and revolution was still in the air; we had no fees indeed we were given grants to go to uni, we had almost annual demonstrations in London demanding grant increases, we were pro-abortion, anti-war and so forth. I found politics way more interesting than electronics so spent much more time in the student union than in lectures, culminating in campaigning to leave the Common Market, indeed rushing out of my final exam in 1975 to head down to the count! There is a certain sense of déjà vu 41 years later! So the first lady - my mother; I disappointed her by failing my finals, it was a great pleasure to have her aged 91 with me at the Barbican when I finally graduated albeit in a totally different field.

The second and much younger lady is my daughter, who I first met aged two in the Pattaya Orphanage Christmas 1992, she arrived in the UK 32 months later. This whole process was complex leaving me often very unimpressed with the authorities, not unusual, as Tom Jones sang? She had a difficult start in life and I guess that's when my interest in child development leading into psychology started but it was not until years later when I came into contact with CAMHS concerning the young family of 3 siblings we were fostering that I first spoke with a child psychologist. I learned as much about my daughter as I did about the issues of the foster children. By that time my daughter had run away from school and was estranged from my family.

I was introduced to Nancy Verbiers book 'The Primal Wound' it could have been written as almost a biography of my daughter and in there I saw how wrong we'd been to constantly visit her in Thailand whilst she remained incarcerated in the Orphanage, instead of building the bonds we were very cruelly knocking her down each time we left! Anyway as a young lady of 25 she's one of the boomerang generation keeping on coming home whilst she auditions new boyfriends!

The third lady I met at Bangor in the summer of 1973, she was somewhat more diligent than me and was rather cross when I failed my finals. She was with me again years later as my life changed and she said I really should get that degree so we talked about it and I researched the OU. It was in the October of 2012 that I finally enrolled two months after she lost her third fight with Cancer, without her I'm not sure I'd have started.

So what of the degree journey itself? Well it had been over 40 years since my last essay at history O-level which I failed, essays weren't required on the Science side in those days so I had no idea what was required. I diligently attended my tutorials and started to learn just what the 'O' in OU really stood for. Open frankly in every way, open first in access (though increased fees make that debatable) but more to the point open in terms of the people. I have encountered students that cut across every social spectrum, young to old, rich to poor, well-educated to barely educated, advantaged to disadvantaged. This really struck home at Brighton residential school, summer 2014 bringing together a very diverse group of people (and that was just the tutors!), to work and play together. I don't know which group of dimwits at the OU decided to end residential schools but in my opinion they made a grave mistake.

Fortunately, at least for us psychology students we have OUPS which running three weekends a year helps, at least for those of us lucky enough to be able to attend, to bridge that gap between the brick uni experience and distance learning. Social media does a similar job with many sites now standing in as coffee shop or bar, mind you I have disagreed with some of the virtual bouncers (admin!) from time to time. The OU, I think needs to work on this a little?

Open indeed was the case when the time came to book for the DD303 residential school, about 60 of us conspired to attend together in Warwick (we’d met largely through OUPS), I nearly ended up on the Naughty Step there with some of the other usual suspects! As it was, 'Open' was further illustrated as my study buddy for my final two modules, Milyana, was not even in the UK but from the Emerald Isle (I think the Irish Crew that week was around a dozen), we ran an experiment that pushed cognitive as far into social as was possible, the irony was it worked and we got a significant interaction. Further we presented that project at the COUPS memory conference later that year!

Having said the O in OU means open that openness has caused me to mix in new circles cutting across boundaries, to that end Claire who I met through OUPS is half my age, I am blind to that, I doubt she is! But she got in touch saying she was planning graduating at the Barbican and would I join her that's how I got there. A strange identity crisis ensued I was her contemporary yet on meeting her parents they were my contemporaries too! 'Open' in this case transcending the normal groupings.

So we arrived at the Barbican finding around 350 students preparing to graduate in front of their guests. The OU may struggle to organise certain events in breweries but they certainly know how to run a graduation ceremony. A mini orchestra 'serenaded' us as we took our seats, tweets from well-wishers and attendees were projected on the screen, one at least was somewhat risqué! In came the main party and the speakers instructed us to be noisy in our appreciation and noisy we were. The Executive Dean, Professor Mary Kellett had a private word for every graduate, often having family members pointed out to her, some took selfies with her, a few gave her a flamboyant hug, I opted to kiss her hand and she amazed me by curtsying, commenting also she liked my red trousers! The highlight was perhaps the mother and son who were graduating together generating the biggest applause. Halfway through they presented an honorary degree to the 'mumsnet' founders but only one of them was present. Speeches were kept to a minimum, it all flowed like clockwork as we were heralded through, our academic dress adjusted by stewards just prior to us walking on stage. We felt like members of a large family shepherded through yet treated totally as individuals, everyone walked tall as they strode across the stage.

We then left the auditorium, regrouping, with our family and friends, Milyana flew over from Dublin, a couple of OUPS committee members were also present, for a glass of fizzy wine and photos outside by the fountains, the rain held off and none of us fell into the ponds! On then to the pub where a number of other students joined us for an after party. Mum came and thoroughly enjoyed her lunch before being taken home by my daughter. So that was it for me, 3 years exactly and I earned a psychology degree learning basically three things: firstly there is no normal, I learned that from David Bottomley at the OUPS annual conference in 2015 (he's presenting at COUPS this Autumn), secondly the biopsychosocial model from Prof Fred (he’s at virtually every OUPS event) and finally from Dylan I learned "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now". The OU has changed me, its expanded my mind and outlook and made me feel if not look younger, I've also made a number of friends that given the ease of contact provided via the Internet I believe will stay friends for a very long time- you know who you are!

As a postscript at the after party I was caught texting and to great amusement to all except Claire (given my 307 project topic) when she realised it was her mother I was messaging, her fears were unfounded I was passing on details of the Future Learn website, her mother Sue starts her first course shortly, the cycle re-starts ......Xx

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