Whenever I disclose that I am a student with The Open University, I’m often met with a response such as: “Wow, that must be isolating.” I can’t deny that I have agreed with this statement once or twice, it’s impossible to gloss over the fact that studying from home can prove challenging from time-to-time but it can also be incredibly rewarding and, as I edge closer to the end of my third module, I’m confident that choosing to study remotely was the right option for me.
However, initially determining what path to follow was a difficult decision. I came face to face with many challenges during my time at school due to my vision impairment, and, as my chronic illness plagued my life with debilitating symptoms, I found it difficult to strike a balance.
This encouraged some nerves to tickle my thoughts when I talked through the idea of going to university with family, friends and support staff. It wasn’t a sense of reluctance in terms of advancing my learning because that’s something I always strived to do, but I was hesitant in terms of how I could cope with the workload since I was struggling to contend with my sixth form commitments. Another worry that permeated my thoughts was the fact that I never thrived in terms of my confidence in an educational environment, and I found it difficult to disclose my accessibility needs.
I eventually resolved to take a year away from studying after my A-Levels in order to weigh up my options. I was lucky in the sense that I secured a part-time role for a national charity for the next year, an experience that proved invaluable.
There came a time when I needed to determine my next step. My heart was still set on furthering my education but I knew that I wouldn’t be invested in the traditional university experience. As I learned more about the concept of distance learning, I spent hours scrolling through The Open University’s website and, after contacting their disability team to talk through the support they offered to see if it aligned with what I needed in order to complete my studies to the best of my abilities, I felt as though this was more of a realistic possibility for me.
Two years down the line and I’m still content with this choice, all materials are available for me in an accessible format and my tutors have always taken my needs into consideration which was a huge relief. I’ve come across a few hurdles along the way but nothing that can’t be resolved through a quick email or phone call.
LESSONS LEARNED & ADVICE
In light of the fact that many of us are studying and working from home at the moment due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned in my time as a distance learner along with some advice to others who might be considering this way of studying for the future.
As someone who lives with a fluctuating chronic illness, adhering to routines isn’t always a realistic possibility for me. However, I do try to maintain certain rhythms from day-to-day; I always try to ensure that I get up early and utilise my mornings since my productivity levels are higher during this time. But I also spread out my tasks throughout the day, ensuring that I take plenty of rests in-between.
I have to recognise that some days aren’t going to be as productive as others but rest days are just as valuable. It’s important to take time out for yourself, listen to your body and prioritise your health. This can prove challenging for me because my workaholic tendencies don’t compliment my chronic illness very well, but I’m finding the value in taking time away and listening to my own needs.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO TALK ABOUT YOUR NEEDS
This applies to any university or work experience because it’s ultimately what can make or break your overall journey. I’ve previously held back in terms of voicing what I need to make work accessible for me but, in the last couple of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to disclose my needs. Doing this has allowed me to recognise the value of being open and honest about what will help me throughout my studies. Advocating for yourself can be exhausting at times but you’re ultimately the expert when it comes to your disability and therefore it’s only you who knows what can help the most.
IT CAN BE INCREDIBLY REWARDING
I noted at the beginning that, although occasionally isolating, studying from home can be very rewarding. There’s a certain sense of euphoria when you develop your self-motivation and adopt skills that might not have come to light otherwise.
IT’S OK TO VENTURE ON A DIFFERENT PATH TO OTHERS
When I eventually decided to study with The Open University, I was still dubious in terms of other people’s judgements. I was told that choosing this path would deny me the freedom, independence and experiences that a conventional university could offer and that only sparked further hesitancy. Ultimately, I had to put my own preferences before anyone else’s opinions and whilst a small part of me was wary, I knew deep down that it was the best choice for me.
I found the concept of going to university quite overwhelming, both in a social sense and in terms of how I’d navigate the experience with two unpredictable conditions. Whilst so many people narrated their positive university experiences, I knew that it wasn’t the right decision for me and I think it should be stressed that it’s ok not to follow the crowd. I didn’t know of anyone who chose distance learning over any other form of study so it was a step into the unknown but it’s one of the most valuable leaps I’ve ever taken.
Elin Williams is an undergraduate student with The Open University, undertaking a degree in Arts & Humanities (specialising in English Language and Creative Writing). The 21-year-old is also a writer and blogger based in North Wales. She was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa aged six and was given the diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) ten years later. Elin has worked and volunteered in the charity sector ever since her time at sixth form and she’s committed to using her personal experiences of living with sight loss and chronic fatigue to help others in a similar situation. She created her blog, My Blurred World, in 2015 in order to document the feelings of isolation she was experiencing at the time, hoping that her content could reassure others that they’re not alone.
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