The incredible story of OU modern languages graduate, Tracy Thorpe, who studied for her degree whilst working as professional crew on sailing yachts.
Whilst at school Tracy wasn’t inspired to stay on to do A-levels so she left at 15 after getting a handful of O-levels and went straight into work. She eventually found herself working all around the world, establishing a career as part of professional crews on sailing yachts.
But deep down she always felt that she hadn’t really achieved her potential and that she should have gone to university after she left school, but she knew that at that time it wouldn’t have been right for her.
Taking the plunge
Many years later, after a period of looking after her mother who had Alzheimer’s, Tracy was spurred into signing up with the OU. Whilst working on yachts around Europe she had picked up some French and done some self-study to help her with her job. However, once she was back in the UK looking after her mum she noticed her language skills starting to fade. She says:
I had read that being bilingual could be a preventative for Alzheimer’s – something that was very much on my mind due to my mother’s illness, so I decided now was the time and signed up with the OU.
Stormy weather and flying fish
Tracy didn’t let her unconventional work life get in the way of her studies. She started her degree in Modern Languages (French and English) in 2011 and sailed thousands of miles whilst studying before completing her degree in 2017.
Studying whilst working on-board a yacht poses many unusual challenges – stormy weather, multiple time zones and erratic WiFi connections to name just a few! Tracy completed many of her TMAs* whilst at sea, and says the flexibility and portability of OU study means that you really can study anywhere:
I have written essays in horrible storms as well as on deck during beautiful weather with flying fish sailing past. I’ve studied in between navigating and listened to downloaded OU audio files whilst on watch. I’ve had to ring my tutors occasionally on the satellite phone from the middle of the ocean to request an extension on a TMA because it’s been too rough to write. I’ve attended online tutorials in the middle of the night because of the time difference in whatever country I was in at the time.
Access to decent WiFi was a particular challenge for Tracy whilst at sea:
I studied as much as I could when I was off watch and when in port I often had to ‘beg, borrow and steal’ other people’s internet connection to ensure I had WiFi for key activities. I did my level 3 French oral exam in the back office of a shipyard in Nova Scotia, having begged the manager to let me use their WiFi as our boat was docked in the area. The signal kept dropping out during my exam but I persevered and ended up with a distinction! I flew back to the UK to sit my written exams and then flew straight back to go to sea.
“Tough, but worth it”
Tracy graduated from the OU with first class honours in 2017. She firmly believes that the experience of studying with the OU has changed her as a person and sparked her love of learning. She says:
My advice to anyone considering doing an OU course is it may be tough but it’s worth it. Don’t think if something unexpected happens that you can’t carry on – the flexibility and portability of the OU means that you can do it, regardless of what life throws your way. There are times when it was really hard, but learning is such an incredible thing. If I can do it whilst sailing around the world then anyone can do it.
*Tutor Marked Assignment
Find out more about studying languages with the OU
Dip your toe in the water: try a free language course on OpenLearn – the OU’s home of free learning
Dive in: sign up for one of our Modern Languages courses