Fiona Hirons began studying with the OU when she fell ill with Chronic fatigue syndrome/ME in 2002. After becoming largely bed-bound and being forced to give up her demanding career, she says studying helped her to cope with the loss of her previous way of life.
Here, the remarkable Fiona shares her story:
“I was no stranger to studying before I fell ill. After leaving university with a Geography degree, I went into the accountancy profession to obtain a business qualification. Over the years, my career progressed, and I became a partner in a firm of Chartered Accountants, which I juggled alongside parenthood and a number of voluntary roles.
When I fell ill with CFS/ME, I was unable to continue working in this successful and demanding career. I found it very difficult not to be intellectually-challenged and chose the OU Modern Languages course to give me something to focus on. I’d always wanted to learn Spanish, so suddenly having time on my hands gave me the opportunity to do so. Being house-bound, distance learning was my only option.
A flexible way of learning
I was quite overwhelmed by the amount of support on offer for disabled students at The Open University. (By this stage of my illness I had to accept that adjective!) As I was mostly bed-bound, I was thrilled to discover just how much the OU could offer to help me to return to study.
As well as the more obvious things like flexibility with deadlines, which took into account my cognitive issues, fatigue and relapses, if I was unable to get to the class tutorial, I was offered oral tutorial sessions over the phone. My tutors were incredibly helpful. The OU enabled me to sit the exams by allowing me to do them in my own home with a kind and understanding invigilator. I was permitted rest breaks and the three-hour exam was split between two days.
As if this wasn’t amazing enough, one of the best aspects was that they provided an alternative to the compulsory field trip to Spain. I was terribly disappointed to have to miss the trip, however I was lucky enough to start studying just as the OU had developed virtual learning online, so I was able to do some alternative seminars with other students.
My family was supportive and my husband or my carer enabled me to get to the tutorials when I was well enough.
I was very happy to pass the three courses with good grades; however, I didn’t complete the final year of the degree, as this required travelling far for tutorials, which I was unfortunately unable to do. Nevertheless, it was a great experience to have done the studying I did manage! Funnily enough, I have been looking into the possibility of more study recently as my health has improved enough to enable me to do part-time study.
‘Just go for it!’
My advice for anyone considering embarking on a course would be to go for it! Especially if you have not been to university before. The opportunity to study helped give me direction and purpose at a point when my life as I had known it had disappeared and the future seemed quite bleak.
The OU saved me from going mad with boredom and helped counteract my sense of loss of my capabilities. Well done OU for your innovative and flexible approach that enables people like me to study.
There will always be challenges but with the support given by the OU these can be overcome and you will be richer for the experience whatever the outcome.”
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.