Susanna van Tonder enrolled with The Open University to push herself personally and professionally, but just two years into her studies, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Susanna shares how her tutor’s support helped her stick with her Open Degree – and how she’s now using the skills she acquired daily.
Susanna, who lives in Luxembourg, said: “I am so happy I had a tutor at the OU who told me that I needn’t worry and that he’d had many students with health problems who had accomplished their degrees.
“I am so thankful that I received so much understanding and encouragement. It was comforting to have someone who believed in me. He made me see that things would be ok.”
‘I chose the OU because of its reputation and flexibility’
Being able to study flexibly was important to Susanna – but she also wanted a university with an excellent international reputation.
“I chose the OU because of its reputation,” she explained. “I work full time, and the flexibility of the OU has allowed me to complete a degree without having to give up my income. That’s a really important aspect when you’re an adult learner.
“I am super interested in personal growth and learning,” she added. “I also wanted to expand my career – and the OU provides a lot of transferable skills such as critical thinking, curiosity, time management – and most importantly perseverance.”
‘I love distance learning’
For Susanna, supported distance learning has enabled her to study at a pace that suits her.
“I love distance learning. I can study at my own time and pace. This is really helpful with my multiple health conditions,” she said. “I have so many things going on. I want the best of life – on my time. There is also the health issue and my disability which mean I’m not always functioning at 100%. With the OU I have the option to work when I can.
“My studies were well organised in terms of tutorials and study material, and when I had questions, I could ask my tutors or fellow students – or even just ring student support if I had an urgent matter to clarify. The support provided is actually invaluable.
“With regards to the social aspect, there are ways to connect with the community too. Distance learning doesn’t have to mean no contact. I met one of my best friends during my first module!”
‘OU study has changed me’
Susanna’s journey has not been without its challenges – including moving house, jobs, bereavement and illness – but thankfully the support of her loved ones and tutors helped her through.
“OU study has changed me and how I perceive myself,” she said. “I have learnt that good things take time. I have become resilient, perseverant, and more confident. I have begun to see how capable I actually am and I’ve learnt to deal with challenges. I have also learnt that I have a voice and that my perceptions and opinions do matter. I am a better version of myself now than I was at the start of my studies.”
After initially starting a Social Sciences degree, Susanna was able to switch to a flexible Open Degree, which she says has helped her enormously in her work and volunteering roles.
She said: “I use my acquired skills daily. I am also part of the leadership team for my national MS society, I volunteer with the European Multiple Sclerosis Platform’s Young People’s Network and with Shift.ms. I am currently contributing to a global MS research project led by the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation and the Charcot Foundation. And I have been elected to be a member of the OU Students’ Association’s Disabled Students Group. I do not think I would have been able to do all these wonderful things without my OU journey.
“The flexibility of creating your own path is simply amazing – the management courses helped me in my current professional and civic engagement roles. The content of my modules definitely helped me shape my path. I am super thankful for the opportunity to create a degree adapted to my needs and interests. It’s ingenious.”
‘The possibilities are endless’
To anyone considering OU study, Susanna had these words of encouragement:
“I would ask them what they want to achieve from learning and studying. If it is simply a degree to advance career-wise, the OU offers a multitude of bespoke, well-researched and easy-to-understand study material. If it is to study out of interest, the same applies! Select your study path according to what you love and want to learn more about. My interest in the topics I chose always kept me engaged!
“The world is open for us and the possibilities are endless – we just need to believe in them.”