“It’s 50 years since I was at school,” explains Sue West, now retired and one of the first cohort of students ever to graduate with a BA in English Literature and Community Engagement from the University of Bristol.
This innovative undergraduate programme, which started six years ago, combines an exploration of English literature with community outreach work – be that through a prison reading group, a local poetry group or, as in Sue’s case, leading a short story group for the University of the Third Age (U3A). Structured on a part-time basis, with lectures and seminars organised on a couple of days and evenings a week, the course provides an accessible route to a university degree for a much wider audience.
“I wanted to do something with books in my spare time. I had already joined a book group at U3A, but my peers all had degrees and I felt out of my depth,” Sue explains. “I had failed the 11 plus and left school at 16. I felt like a failure.”
Originally Sue responded to an advertisement about a short University course — Reading English Literature —in the local paper. After she finished, she was hungry for more.
“One of the short course teachers mentioned the part-time degree to me,” she explains. “I had grown in confidence and really enjoyed the short course, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”.
Now six years later, with a lot of reading, essay-writing, exams and community engagement work behind her, Sue has finished her degree and takes time to reflect on the impact that the course has had on her.
“A lot of life has happened for us during the years of this course,” she says. “Births, deaths, marriages – we’ve grown close as a result of sharing these experiences together and I’ve made some very good friends for life.”
She is continuing to lead the short story reading group, and is also supporting efforts to set up a similar group in other parts of Bristol. “We get through an enormous amount of literature,” she says, smiling. “We read the stories at home and then come together for a discussion. Currently we’re doing Chekhov.”
With the graduation ceremony approaching, tickets reserved and the cape and gown booked, Sue is looking forward to celebrating six momentous years with her fellow students, family and friends.
“I didn’t think that the University of Bristol was for me,” she says. “Now I’m graduating with a pioneering new degree from ‘that place up on the hill’. My parents would have been so proud of me.”