As an unmarried single mother in the 1970s, Elizabeth Tye found it difficult to make her dreams of university come true. After two attempts of studying at a conventional brick university, in 1972, 23-year-old Elizabeth enrolled with the OU, becoming one of our early pioneer students. It was an opportunity which she says has ‘opened doors’ for her ever since.
“I took two Foundation courses that first year, Mathematics and Arts, and studied alone while my four-year-old daughter was at school,” Elizabeth tells us. “I remember the flat was cold during the day and I’d climb into bed, fully clothed, with my winter coat on, and huddle down with my course units.”
On one occasion Elizabeth applied for funding to help her pay for her studies, something she says she will ‘always be grateful for’. As Elizabeth progressed with her course, she describes how the ongoing support she received from students and tutors would keep her motivated to finish:
“I struggled on many occasions over the years, with course content and life events, and came close to giving up. Each time it was a fellow student or a tutor who gave me the impetus to keep going. I’d leave assignments to the last minute then panic, but a phone call from another student would remind me of how far I’d come and nudge me over the line.”
After five years, Elizabeth completed her OU degree in 1976 – a double celebration as she was also pregnant with her third child.
Opening doors for others
While studying, Elizabeth had begun to offer private tuition to school children and adults – the first step towards a lifelong passion for teaching and supporting others.
The pupils she taught varied, from primary school students needing help with basic times tables, to A-Level pupils and adults. Despite their differences, Elizabeth says the one thing they all had in common was that others had doubted them.
“The majority of my students had been told they were not good enough to take O Levels. The reality turned out to be different. They all worked hard on a regular basis and they all passed. I think the most important thing I gave them was not the mathematical knowledge but the belief that somebody cared that they should do well.”
Finding her vocation
Over the years, Elizabeth worked in various education roles and due to a change in circumstances, she also spent a spell working in IT and computing. Following her divorce and her youngest child leaving home, Elizabeth moved to the ‘hills of Derbyshire’ and found a role which would marry her love of mathematics, computing and teaching.
“I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time post within the Adult Education Service in a large centre offering online learndirect courses,” says Elizabeth, who headed a team offering in-house and online support to returning learners following individualised learning programmes.
A chance to give back
“At last I felt I was really giving back some of what I had been given all those years before,” Elizabeth says. “I was opening doors for those for whom the ‘normal’ routes had closed.”
“Many of the learners were older people who’d never had the chance to study beyond the age of 14. I welcomed all learners wanting to improve their prospects, but the group I most identified with and was excited to help were the single and divorced mothers anxious to gain qualifications in order to find work and provide for their children. I was pleased to be able to help them work towards their goals and, in many cases, see them make changes for the better.”
Now retired, Elizabeth believes that her decision to study with the OU in the 1970s helped to change the course of her life.
“A thousand thank yous to The Open University who made all of this possible, not just for my family and myself, but for all those others whom I’ve felt privileged to help over the years. I’m not sure where I’d have been without you.”
Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at The Open University. She loves telling stories and has spent the past 10 years writing about everything from nappy bags to balance transfers. She holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Media Studies from Coventry University. When she’s not writing, Carly enjoys reading, sharing good food with great people, and all things colourful.