At 18, Candace Louison from Cardiff had a life-changing decision to make. Should she accept her offer to go to university as planned? Or kick-start her career and start making money? It wouldn’t be until years later that she realised she had the flexibility to do both through The Open University in Wales.
“I was adamant I would go to university,” explains Candace, now 26. “But when the time came, I felt overwhelmed by the idea and took a gap year.
“I started working in retail and progressed quite quickly in my role. A gap year soon turned into six years.”
Though Candace enjoyed earning a living, she knew a degree would be key to her long-term career plans and realised the time was right to invest in herself.
Picking the perfect place to learn
“I decided to look into distance, remote degrees and saw the OU,” says Candace. “There’s this stigma about studying online and questions around ‘is it a real degree?’, so at first I was sceptical, but then I looked into it,” says Candace.
“I’m someone who will never buy anything unless I watch YouTube reviews, so I started watching OU student reviews. I think I watched every single OU-related video so that I knew I was making the right decision.
“I picked the OU to study Business Management firstly because it was significantly more affordable than a brick university and because of the convenience of being able to work full time alongside studying. The application process was just so straightforward too, it wasn’t intimidating.”
Finding the flexibility to earn while you learn
Candace is the first in her immediate family to go to university and wishes that it was more known that students don’t need to choose between higher education and working:
“If your family is not well off, there’s less urgency to pursue higher education. The urgency is bringing in income, you know, to multiply the household income so I think there should be a stress on the fact that you can do both.
“I want students, especially from Black communities to know you can achieve something even if circumstances aren’t in your favour. Whether it be financially, mentally or just circumstances in general like where you live – there’s a chance to bypass that and achieve what you want.”
For anyone who might think that university isn’t an option for them, Candace had these words of wisdom:
“Don’t ever think it’s the end, that you can’t move to university because your family can’t afford it, so you can’t do the degree. Yes, you can. You could do it at home, you could do it in your free time, and if you’re a member of the family who gives financial support, you can do all of that while working too.
“It’s possible, no matter the circumstances, you can achieve higher education and whatever career you have ambitions in.”
The motivation to succeed
Her family’s strong work ethic has motivated Candace to keep gaining experience, even when the pandemic suddenly changed her plans. After being made redundant from her retail job, she grabbed the opportunity to start a virtual internship with the OU and Go Wales.
“I felt like I had the opportunity to learn some real tangible skills. And most importantly, I got a real confidence boost,” she says.
She’s now juggling her third year of studies with two jobs – one as an intern for a digital magazine and the other working in customer services at Cardiff train station.
“At first, I thought I’d finish my degree in three years – little did I know that working full time and studying is an Olympic sport!”
Gaining support from fellow students
Having the flexibility to fit study around life is a big plus for Candace – but she admits it takes a lot of determination:
“I think time management and personal effort is the key to passing with the OU. The actual distance part of learning is a bit of a reality check. You’re really accountable for your own learning. So I think at first it takes a lot of getting used to, but the face to face tutorials are a big help.”
Thankfully, Candace knows the supportive OU student community are there to help – whether it’s sharing wobbles about an assignment or words of encouragement:
“I’d recommend students join the WhatsApp and Facebook groups, because you get a lot of support even for the simplest of things. Everyone’s looking out for each other, it’s just a really good support network.
“And look at the forums on the module website too because people are normally asking questions that you wanted to ask anyway, and your tutor is quite active on the forums as well.”
Making her family proud
As someone who has grown up wanting to be everything from a nurse to a teacher, ambitious Candace knows whatever she decides career-wise, she’d like to go far:
“I think my heart is telling me that I want to work abroad. Transport for Wales have graduate schemes and I’d be able to apply for one before I graduate. There are quite a lot of opportunities. But for now, I’m really enjoying this role in partnerships.”
As far as Candace’s mum is concerned – she’s already looking forward to watching her daughter cross the stage at a graduation ceremony.
“She’s supportive. I told her that in-person graduations are happening, and she was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get my outfit ready!’ I think that parents care about the piece of paper, they don’t care about the all-nighters.”
Introducing a new photo series of OU students
Candace is one of four students featured in a brand-new partnership between The Open University and Alamy, which aims to increase authentic representation of Black and Asian distance learning students. Find out more about this campaign here.