Adult education allows you to take charge of your own learning and you are treated as a person with a valued opinion

Kayla’s story is being shared as part of the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival 2022. The Festival highlighted how everyone can #LearnYourWay, at your own pace, in your own community. The learners involved spoke at the “Learners as Leaders” event on Wednesday 9th March 2022, to celebrate and promote the value of returning to education as an adult.

“I am sitting here now speaking to you all and secondary school me would’ve cringed at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd. This just shows how much confidence you gain in adult education!”

How was your experience of formal education?

I will be completely honest, I had a very negative experience in secondary school. At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition which caused me to almost go blind. I went from being a straight A/B student to missing multiple days of school due to fatigue from medication, having vertigo to the point where some days I couldn’t sit up in bed, being in and out of hospital for tests and appointments along with having eyesight problems. All of this contributed to me becoming behind in my studies.

Kayla with her certificate
My condition is invisible so although I may look well, I could be sitting there with a migraine or vertigo. It got to the point where I had gotten so behind and I was chasing trying to figure out what I had missed in classes two weeks ago and completing homework from that day, I was sitting up to 10 pm doing this and I’d wake up the next morning exhausted. It was a vicious circle.

A difficult decision

At the start of sixth year, it dawned on me that I would never be confident enough to be able to go into the Leaving Cert exams with the little knowledge and preparation I had, plus I was stressed to the nines trying to catch up, and it just all got too much.

My parents and I decided that the best decision for me was to leave school. Deep down, I knew I had no choice, but it was a really difficult one to make because I didn’t know how I would continue my education without being in the formal education system. The Leaving Cert was the only way I could see myself progressing into third level, because that’s the only way we were shown in school. I remember feeling like I had been thrown onto the scrap heap and was unsure where to go next.

After a year out to focus on my health, I enrolled with a distance learning college to complete my Leaving Cert from home, but I was self-learning, which was very difficult. Throughout all of this, my parents kept saying to me that VTOS was always an option, and I would be okay in the end because they themselves had done it and gained so much from it. I suppose I didn’t fully see that as a viable option for me but by God was I wrong! I ended up scrapping the self-learning route as it just wasn’t working for me and that’s when I finally said, I had nothing to lose but go to the upcoming open day in VTOS Roscommon and that’s when everything changed for the better.

Another option

I remember going in and speaking with Orla Connaughton, the co-ordinator, and explained my previous experience and she was so kind and understanding about the whole situation. At first, I was adamant I just wanted to complete the Level 5 as it was the equivalent to the Leaving Cert, but Orla recommended that I start the Level 4 first to ease myself back into a routine of having classes and studying. I’m so glad I listened because I got so much knowledge out of that course, plus I got more time in the centre which, looking back now, I’m very thankful for!

Sitting here now, I’m at a point where my condition is stable and, even though I still experience vertigo and other secondaries to the illness, I am in a place where I have better control of it. I’ve submitted my CAO application and am hoping to progress into a Digital Marketing degree in Athlone. I have also recently started work experience with the local newspaper, where I am assisting with developing the digital media side of the business. This wouldn’t have been possible without VTOS Roscommon.

What was the difference between your formal & adult education experience?

Adult Education is a completely different world. The courses are structured so that you are gradually completing assignments and small exams that all build up to your overall grade in each module which is completely different to the formal education system where everything builds up to one big exam in each subject. This worked a lot better for me.

Adult education allows you to take charge of your own learning and you are treated as a person with a valued opinion. We were actually encouraged to give critiques and suggestions about how best they could modify delivery methods, so you get the best out of your course and for future learners. The learning environment is also completely different in a good way. The teachers, although there’s still a level of professionalism there, almost become like friends, and they genuinely want to see you do well and achieve your goals. I’d be sitting there at lunch sometimes, having a cup of tea and a chat with my teacher, about something unrelated to the course, and I think that makes you feel really relaxed in your learning environment.

Support and Friendship

Myself and my classmates became like a little family as even though we all came from different backgrounds, were of different ages and had different reasons for returning to education, we were all there for the same reason – to better ourselves and seek new opportunities in the future. That goal bonded us and motivated us all to help and support each other to keep going.

For example, I have strong ICT skills, so I was quick picking up on what we were learning on the computer and with adapting to online learning, I ended up helping some of my classmates with that element of the course and then my classmate who was a Guard for 30 years had experience in report writing and would be more familiar with some aspects of the business topics we discussed such as insurance, she’d help me with that aspect. We all were able to take elements of our life experience and put them to good use in helping each other. Even though, we’ve all finished up now, we’re still in contact and still have that peer support network between us.

That’s what I love about adult education courses, you get so much support from the people around you who genuinely want to see you do well. I’ve been meeting regularly with a Maura Fallon, an Adult Guidance Counsellor from the Galway Roscommon Education and Training Board (GRETB), and she has been supporting me every step of the way from researching potential careers to guiding me with job interview preparation and putting together my CAO application. Even now that I have finished up in VTOS, we are still in contact and working on scholarship applications. Maura has played a vital role in where I am today.

Not all about the Leaving Cert

I think that schools put a lot of emphasis on the Leaving Cert as the only way you can progress into third level or make something of yourself when, in reality, there’s plenty of other education routes that may better support you to reach your full potential. One route is through adult and further education courses.

In my school, we weren’t told it was okay to go a different route, or even shown those routes. This is something I have become so passionate about and I want to continue to highlight the incredible opportunities available in the adult education sector. I’m sitting here without a Junior or Leaving Cert and have applied to college under the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and mature student routes! The Leaving Cert certainly isn’t the be all and end all and I truly believe this view some schools have of it being so needs to be changed for the sake of students.

What would you say to people thinking of returning to education?

I know it’s easier said than done, but bite the bullet and do it.

Apply for that course on FETCH, email that course co-ordinator, meet with that Adult Guidance counsellor, go to that open day. I know all too well that fear of going into the unknown. I’ve experienced having that lack of confidence due to being knocked down in the past. I am going to share with you a quote that one of my tutors sent to me the week I submitted my CAO application.

It said: “Don’t let your past define you, defeat you, or destroy you. Let it strengthen you.”

My past struggles in school have made me into the person I am today and so will yours. In some ways, I am grateful for those struggles, as crazy as it sounds. Your past struggles will be your motivators to push through tough times and work hard.

If you are contemplating signing up for a course, I would advise making an appointment with an adult guidance counsellor who can recommend the right course at the level that best suits you, or speak to the course co-ordinator, but just do it, make contact.

The hardest thing is initially walking through that door. Behind those doors are a whole range of opportunities for you and you’ll walk back out of those doors when you’ve finished, a more confident and well-equipped person for the future. I can assure you of that because I am living proof. I’m not going to sit here and say these courses are easy because they aren’t, and it is at times stressful, but you are more than capable and there’s tons of support there for you to best fulfil your potential. You just have to make that first step.

If you’re a current learner here and you may be chipping away at your work, feeling overwhelmed and thinking “God, is all of this hard work even worth it?”, I can assure you it is. I’ve been in your position. It’ll all pay off in the end and you won’t know yourself by the end of it.

Find out more about the AONTAS Adult Learners' Festival 2022 by clicking here