When it comes to helping her community, EAL Coordinator Mihaela Popa, 37, has been described as a ‘force of nature’.
Despite battling COVID multiple times, even while pregnant, Mihaela won’t let anything get in the way of her dream teaching career. She shares how studying with The Open University is helping to make that dream a reality.
“I work in a school helping children with English as an additional language (EAL),” she explained. “I started thinking that I need to get a degree to be able to progress in the future. That’s when The Open University came to my mind.
“I didn’t want to give up my job and get into a full-time commitment with education because I was in the right place in my job. So the OU was fitting nicely in that time. I can continue my job and work my degree around it.”
Support when times were tough
Mihaela enrolled to study BA (Hons) degree in English Language and Literature in 2019 before having her third child. Since then, she’s juggled her OU studies whilst continuing to work full-time, raise her family and make a positive difference in the Romanian community in Luton, which she’s a part of.
Yet the pandemic soon made life even tougher, as Mihaela’s family became ill with COVID not once but twice.
“I just had the baby and then we all had COVID for a while,” said Mihaela. “I was losing hope that I was going to finish my module. The whole family had been unwell, but I pushed through. Now two years later, I’m pregnant again, and I had COVID again recently.
“I just kept going because if I quit, I’m not going to gain what I want to,” she said, going on to praise the ongoing support from the OU community.
“I had an amazing tutor. I can’t thank him enough. His support and advice kept me going and kept me finishing. I followed his constructive advice and that’s how I succeeded.”
Motivation to become a qualified teacher
Through every up and down, Mihaela is kept motivated by her ambition to support families and children who are new to the UK.
“My dream is to finish the degree, then get into teacher training and become an EAL teacher. I want to support students and create curriculum designed for them to be able to help them. And that is my end goal. So I’m not going to give up until I reach that stage.
“I think studying with the OU is an investment in yourself, which is very important. By the end of it is not also just a qualification, but the person you’ve become as well.”
Mihaela is already making a difference in her community and knows that a degree will help her to go even further.
“I love my job. It’s an amazing job to be able to work with children and see the rewards in children,” she said.
“I work with students coming from different backgrounds and most of them have emotional needs coming to England, having no friends – the children and families – and having no understanding of the new systems,” she explained. “Once we build a relationship with families in the community, the children’s achievements are much higher.
“We help with everything from meals, to transport to uniforms, to helping parents with the local authority. We even have a separate parent’s evening so they can feel welcomed. We’re trying to make the transition for them really easy so families feel supported in our school and know they are important and valued.”
Mihaela also wants to show her children that anything is possible and says that the family often study together – Mihaela with her degree, her husband with a PGCE and her eldest son with his school homework.
“I’ve explained to my son, the same way that he has homework, mummy has homework too,” she said. “He asked me why I didn’t study when I was younger, and I explained to him that education doesn’t have an age.
“Sometimes it’s not that you’re missing the boat. The boat will come at the right time.”
Mihaela’s dedication and resilience was recognised by her OU tutors, and she won an ‘Inspirational Student Award’ from the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies in 2021. Mihaela says it gave her a much-needed boost at a tough time.
“The sleepless nights and the time-racing TMAs were daunting, but the award is something I have never dreamed of in my life,” she said. “As English is my second language, my struggles were harder, but I feel empowered and so full of determination. I now feel I can conquer the world!”