Our students: Eulinda Antonette Clarke-Akalanne

Four days a week, Eulinda Antonette Clarke-Akalanne gets the 6.15 am train to Bristol from Bridgewater in Somerset, en route to the University of Bristol where she is a student on the Foundation in Arts and Humanities. This is an exciting programme that, she hopes, will lead to a Bachelor’s degree in arts.

“I’ve always wanted to do a degree,” she explains. “In my mid-twenties, when I was a nurse, I became interested in the Kalahari Bushmen in South Africa and indigenous peoples generally. I was fascinated by them.”

Antonette, as she is known, started reading more widely around the subject and wanted to study more, but she had a young family at the time and was already involved in a wide range of professional training related to her nursing.

“I’ve worked across many different fields in nursing and healthcare; from psychiatric nursing, midwifery and general nursing to social work and health visiting,” she said. “I wanted to do a degree, but it wasn’t the right time in my life.”

Now a grandmother to seven children, she is a fervent advocate of education. “I believe that education is power and encouraged each of my three children to go to university. My two sons both have degrees in engineering and my daughter has a BA in Childhood Studies, actually from Bristol University,” she smiles, proudly.

“One of my granddaughters is about to go to university herself,” she says. “When I told her that I was off to uni too, she exclaimed, ‘but you’re not 18, Grandma!’”

The Foundation in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol is a unique pre-degree programme valuing personal experience and potential far more than a portfolio of A-Levels. Applicants to this programme have a very different path from the majority of students coming straight from school; people for whom education didn’t happen at the right time, or didn’t happen at all. Foundation students study a wide range of subjects to build up their knowledge in the arts and humanities in the hope that, on successful completion of the year, they can progress to an undergraduate degree, either at the University of Bristol or elsewhere. Open to people of any age, the current cohort of students spans five decades; from 19 years to 70 plus.

“I had a very successful professional life,” says Antonette. “At retirement, I wanted to give something back so I volunteered for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, mentored children in care, and taught Tai Chi to elderly people.”

Also an active member of an audience-led theatre group called Breathing Fire, a member of the local bowling group and a singer with the University of the Third Age, Antonette has now turned her incredible energy to student life at one of the UK’s top universities.

“I’ve given most of my other activities up, to concentrate on the Foundation,” she says. “I might be more than 70 years old, but I’m proof that it’s never too late to continue your education. My son thinks that I’ve got more zest for life since I became a student.”

Antonette was attracted by the Foundation because of its sheer breadth of subjects on offer. “Although I know that my main interest is anthropology, the Foundation is a great way of starting to study,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to explore a range of subjects and practice much-needed skills like essay writing in a very supportive environment.” “I was excited from the moment I set foot inside the University,” she smiles, remembering her first day at the University. “I’ve got a diploma, but not a degree so the chance to achieve my goal at this age is wonderful. It feels right that I’m doing this now.” At first, Antonette was understandably worried about studying and managing her workload, but she has been helped by her tutor, the Mature Students Officer and the Disability Services Team, which helped her get a grant to buy a new computer with vision enhancing software. This means that she’ll be able to work from home more and be on the 6.15 am from Bridgewater less. She’s got to grips with essays too!

“I struggled a bit with the first one, but since, I’ve just got better at organising my ideas and presenting my arguments,” she says, reflecting on the 68 per cent mark she received for her recent effort. “But I should have got a 70,” she grins.

As for carrying on to a degree after the Foundation, Antonette is still struck by anthropology and has attended some additional undergraduate lectures in the subject. She is clearly in her element. “I’ve been surprised by how easy the transition to being a student has been. I’m definitely a fish in water with a new lease of life,” she concludes. “I feel that a person should follow their dreams. You’re never too old!”

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