"No matter how small you are, you can be bigger than anything you can think of with education"

Deborah's story is shared as part of AONTAS’s One Step Up national campaign from 24th - 28th January 2022 to raise awareness about the benefits of returning to education as an adult.

My name is Deborah Oniah. I am a mother of four. I moved to Ireland five years ago. I have a law degree from my own country, Nigeria, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Trauma Studies from University College Cork. I am very passionate about mental health and I am also very passionate about education. No matter how small you are, you can be bigger than anything you can think of with education!

Deborah Oniah, an adult learner with a postgraduate diploma in Trauma Studies from University College Cork, smiles at the camera
I am a member of Cork Migrant Centre, the Women's Group at the Nano Nagel Place in Cork, and I am the secretary of Saoirse, a registered Social Enterprise project run by migrant women in the community and migrant women living in Direct Provision Centres in Cork and in the Cork environs. The project is supported by Nano Nagle Place Cork and funded by the Local Enterprise Office of Cork City and County, and currently the group is engaged in The Mothertongue Project. I also facilitate parenting workshops. I am very passionate about supporting mothers and letting women know they can go back to education. With education, formal or informal, every woman has a chance to get their life back. It might be difficult with kids, but if I could do it, anybody can! I just graduated from UCC with a PGDip in Trauma Studies, and I feel very proud of myself! Now I am thinking of moving forward, going back to further education for my Masters, and I know I can.

When it comes to migrant voices, I like to share my voice. I know there are a lot of issues and difficulties we face, but at the same time, there are a lot of opportunities out there that supports women. What is different in Ireland from my home country Nigeria, is that there is support if you have mental health issues, there is support for that, or if you struggle with education, there is support for that. The problem for us, the migrants, is finding the connection between the issue and getting support. We mostly come from countries with limited support and services, and we are afraid to ask. Asking feels like a sign of weakness, so you keep carrying the weight, and we assume that "nobody will listen to me", we all have that belief that we are strong enough to keeping going, but everyone needs support, everyone needs a community. For us it takes a while to unlearn that and I am happy to be a part of that change.

Finding a Path

My first two years in Ireland were extremely hard. I felt very isolated and alone. I had just moved to a different country, and a different culture. Leaving was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make but five years later I am glad I did. My biggest struggle was not being able to do anything or contribute to my new country, it is tough to have worked for almost my entire life just to stop and do nothing. For me, this was additional stress to the isolation I was feeling.

In the beginning, the challenge for me was the workload. I have four kids, I have to be a mum and a student, with classes and assignments.These challenges made me realize how strong I am, as a woman, as a mom. It was challenging, but the outcome for me was my confidence. I went to all classes, I met the deadlines for my assignments. The first semester was challenging because my kids were not used to seeing me studying in front of a computer very seriously. But we all adjusted and it gave me power and belief in myself.

I believe my journey to recovery started in a coffee group at the Cork Migrant Centre because apart from just going and sharing as a migrant woman, they also offer short courses and training, that was where I did the Train the Trainer course that later allowed me to facilitate parenting workshops to help other migrant women who were struggling with the new law and the cultural difference. We also got information on workshops happening in the community. They let me know about the intercultural dialogue training, and I attended that and now facilitate in it.  Truly in that space, we all got empowered.

UCC is one institution I must mention because they are helping more people get back to education. I remember the first scholarship opportunity that was offered in 2018; it was restricted to ages 25 and under and I was almost 40 at the time. I definitely did not qualify for it. But in 2019, with stakeholders' involvement and the school standing for "inclusivity", and the roll-out of the Sanctuary Scholarship, it became inclusive for everybody and there was no restrictionFor people with a language barrier, fundamental English courses were available.

I don't know if other colleges across the country are doing the same. I can only speak for UCC and other colleges in Cork City that are now offer Sanctuary Scholarship opportunities. It is not charity, it is empowerment and that is where true changes happens.

Now young people and adult learners can access further education, which is indeed a blessing. I do like to mention one barrier to education for most migrants who are liveing in Ireland: With the Irish system, if you have not lived in Ireland for three years, you pay a non-EU fee, and if a child wants to further their education, it becomes extremely difficult. Where will parents get that kind of money, you know? So, many young children living in Direct Provision who finished secondary school will stay at home because they can’t afford the fee. But with this scholarship, they are now going forward to third-level education, which is really great.

Trauma Studies: The Right Course

I remember clearly in 2019 when the rollout of courses in UCC became inclusive, I saw the Trauma Studies course and thought I would choose this course because I was going to learn this course for myself, because I was having issues without knowing what the issues were. I wanted to be able to name them, to identify them. It was in the first or second lesson, I remember thinking, "Oh my God, this place is not for me!", just because the class was full of counsellors, therapists, I mean, real professionals. I looked at myself: I have a law degree, and I had mental health issues! I was like the guinea pig in the room! (She laughs) But, I found that course truly a blessing to my life. Imagine you have experienced complex loss and adverse childhood experiences; I was learning about myself with every lecture, and I saw myself on the pages of the lecture book!

I am very happy that Trauma Studies was among the scholarship courses, and that I had the courage to continue doing it. I finished in June. It was a two-year postgraduate course. It was one of the most amazing things I did for myself! It helped me to be more compassionate to myself.

One of the most important lessons I took from the course is that we often hear people say, "Why is the person behaving like this?" But the right question should be, "What happened to the person?" Because whatever is going on with someone, what we see is a coping mechanism for trauma. You know, many people live in anxiety, fear and pain, and there is a lot of silence with truly expressing pain, particularly things that happened when you were younger. You think, time will pass, and it will go away, but it never does. The head refreshes the situation. The body keeps it. I am truly glad I did the course. I started and I finished and I came out a better version of myself.

Supports for Returning to Education

Another organisation helping people get back to education is the National Learning Network in Cork. They offer employer-based training that allows you to gain work experience. It is often very hard for a migrant to get a job, the kind of job you would like. You need to go through education, like third level education or requalification courses to match your skill set and work experience.

However, I think the information is not really there! If you are a migrant, you don't really know where to go at the beginning. You wouldn't know where to get information from, in relation to employment. There is still a huge gap. Even though you know about Citizens Information services, you struggle, you think: "Should I go, shouldn't I, should I, shouldn't I!" It is really hard! To make a move, you have to reach a point like: "I really want to do it!" Like, for me, I really wanted to do something to rescue myself. I wanted to be more than my situation.

The Value of Learning

As a child I always loved learning. I am a small woman, but I have a well of knowledge because of education. I am always open to learning new things. I love education, and I find education very empowering. There is no limit to your mind if you go to school. I am a lifelong learner. I have a law degree, but I knew there was no way I could practice straight away in the a new place and who would employ me was another thing I struggled with. Back home, I used to facilitate, and I wanted to start facilitating workshops. So, I was wondering what kind of job should I start with. I did Intercultural Dialogue training to become a facilitator because I realized that migrants who come to the country need to be aware of the different culture. I also write, and I am honoured to now have some of my pieces published in Ireland.

The Benefits of Learning for Wellbeing

When you start a course, you get into a routine. You wake up every morning and have something to look forward to. You meet people with like minds to connect with. Then you start reading, your mind starts getting bigger, your imagination gets bigger. You start learning different things. You become a part of a group of powerful and interesting people who bring stories. You start feeling you belong to something. You get an education. You get empowered. It just shifts everything!

Particularly for migrant people, when you arrive in another country, you feel isolated. But when you start learning, you suddenly feel like,"I am here, and I belong here, I am a part of something". New friendships are formed. Believe me, it is never too late! A lady in my class, turning fifty, shared with us: "This course is a gift to myself turning 50!" Education is a gift no one can take away from you.

A Positive Impact on my life, family, community

Education has helped my mental health. I lost my mom when I was very young. There was silence around it. After that happened, my sister went to another house. So, it wasn't just me losing my mom but my whole family. As a child, I had panic attacks.  During the Trauma Studies course, the module on adverse childhood experiences gave me a clearer understanding of  why I had anxiety and panic attacks. Being able to name what was wrong with me was huge. I learned to show myself more empathy and love.

My children are very proud, they watched me suffer emotionally and they watched me pick myself up, I honestly believe that is the greatest life lesson for my children.

In terms of my community, I am able to share information with the people in the migrant centre and my local community about services. I also encourage people to get help, and I inform people about opportunities such as scholarships, and how to apply for courses. For example, last year, I advised a lady to apply for the scholarship, and I said: "What could be the worst thing that will happen? Try anyway!" I also say: "If I can do it, so can you!"

I also advise people to get professional help. I don't impose but inform them that there is help. A lady in our centre lost her husband. She has never been to counselling but she was just moving on like she was fine. When she went to counselling after my information, she was really happy and came back to me saying "Thank you!". Honestly, it is okay to get help!

I am currently doing a Certificate in Global Youth Work and Development Education with Maynooth University and the National Youth Council Ireland. A big difference in Ireland, from my country is the network of support in going back to education as an adult. Education in Ireland has given me a chance to work, first with the Family Resource Centre in Mallow and currently The Cloyne Diocesan Youth Services.

Advice for anyone thinking of learning something new

I think the number one piece of advice I would give is "You can do it!"

I think the way we learn when we are younger is not the same as when we are adults. The teachers respect you as much as you respect yourself. And there is no pressure! I think most of the fear people have is because of the way they experienced school when they were younger. However, adult education is different. The room is different, the space is different, the support is different and until you take the courage to go back to education, you may never know or have the chance to change your experience about learning. For example, if you are learning English as an adult, you are not just learning English. The class extends to everything in life. People share their stories and bring in their life experiences. It is much more interesting. The tutors are out to see you succeed, they facilitate more than they teach. In that space, your voice is always heard!


AONTAS is running this national One Step Up campaign from 24th - 28th January 2022 to raise awareness about returning to education as an adult.

This campaign is led by AONTAS under the new European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL).

For more information on EAAL, visit: or contact Ecem Akarca, AONTAS EU Projects Officer, at:

Are you thinking of returning to education? Visit today or call 1 800 303 669 (free) to speak directly with an AONTAS member of staff.

You may also find the following links useful:

University College Cork Sanctuary Scholarship:

Cork Migrant Centre:

National Learning Network:

Family Resource Centre Mallow: