Five years ago, 52-year-old Rest Less member Christine Rollinson made the decision to leave an unhappy long-term relationship, and found herself with no job, no home and no idea where to turn next. But on the 11th July 2019, the mum of three from South Shields graduated with a 2:1 degree in criminology from The University of Sunderland…
When Christine split from her partner of 22 years in April 2014, she hit a low point when her life seemed to be falling apart around her. Having dedicated the last couple of decades to being a full-time mum to her daughter and two sons, Christine had no paid employment, and after walking away from her relationship – no home either.
Thinking back to the day she packed her bags, she says, “Splitting from my ex was tough, but I just couldn’t stand my situation anymore – I had to get out of there. I literally packed my bags and left. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I went down to the council offices and explained that I couldn’t go back. They explained that I’d have to stay in a refuge or a hostel. Hearing that was pretty awful, but I didn’t care at the time.
“They asked me whether I was sure that I didn’t have anyone else I could stay with, which is when I thought about my stepdad. Seeing as he and my mum were no longer together I wasn’t sure, but I sent him a message and he said I could stay with him. Me and my youngest son, who was 13 at the time, stayed with him for three months and luckily I was able to get a council house after that.”
Apart from finding somewhere else to live, Christine also knew that she would have to go back to work, but having been out of education for 40 years and out of work for 25 years, she felt unsure about what opportunities would be available to her.
She says, “I had worked in a library before I had children, but that was a long time ago. When I first started looking for work again it was incredibly daunting, especially having to create a new CV.”
However, whilst considering her career prospects, Christine decided to go along to what she thought was just a regular open day at her local college:
“I’d heard about Access courses before and thought it could be something I might enjoy doing. I won’t be able to retire until I’m about 67 or 68, so I thought ‘Well if I’m going to be working for at least another 10 years, then I might as well try and give myself the chance to get the best job I can.’
“I went along to a local college for an open day. But when I arrived everything happened so fast. It was literally a case of ‘fill out this form and we’ll be in touch to arrange an interview!’ I was quite surprised, but it was a good thing that it happened like that, otherwise I might have thought about it too long and talked myself out of it. So I filled out the form, waited and then went along to the interview – they told me I could start in September, and that was that!
“I chose Access to Humanities and the course was quite varied, covering core subjects like English and Maths, as well as things like Psychology and Sociology. I attended classes two nights a week for a year. I also began volunteering during the days for the homeless charity, Shelter, which involved working with ex-offenders doing rehabilitation.”
Still coming to terms with the difficult circumstances she’d been dealing with over the past year, Christine hadn’t thought much beyond the end of her Access course, but before long her tutors were telling her it was time to apply to uni.
Laughing, Christine says:
“I remember thinking, ‘What?! Apply to uni?!’ But I just decided to go with it as I felt like I had nothing to lose. I had a think about what I might like to study, eventually deciding on a joint degree in Psychology and Criminology – which I later cut down to just Criminology, as I decided that I would rather focus on a single subject.”
Christine started her undergraduate degree at The University of Sunderland in the autumn of 2016 and hasn’t looked back since. Although she was initially worried about going to university as a mature student, she realises now that she didn’t need to be.
She explains, “I was worried about my age at first, but my tutors and lecturers have been really encouraging and told me that I’m doing a great thing. I also had a really lovely friend called Lucy, who was only 21. I just got on so well with everyone and there was no age difference in their eyes. Well if there was, it didn’t appear like that. I think they kept me going, and kept me young.”
The mum of three also initially had reservations about how she would fund her studies, but she was pleasantly surprised by the amount of financial support available:
“It wasn’t too bad financially actually. I got a maintenance loan to live off and because I was living on my own with my son, I received the maximum loan amount. There are a few different loans and grants available depending on your individual circumstances, and you only start paying back your student loans once you earn a salary above a certain amount. You can get help with buying equipment as well. I got an amount towards buying a new laptop.”
For Christine, completing her degree course was about more than simply studying; it was an opportunity to step outside of her comfort zone and try something new.
She says, “I was with my ex for 22 years, whilst bringing up the kids, and for so long that was the only life I knew. I wasn’t mixing with people during that time – it was like living in a little bubble. But I have much more of a social life now.
“My kids have also been really supportive of my decision to go to university; they all think it’s amazing. I actually graduated with my son’s fiance. She was doing a different subject but we graduated at the same time which was really nice.”
Things weren’t always easy
Although Christine enjoyed her university experience immensely, she admits that things weren’t always easy. She remembers, “On Christmas Eve, December 2017, I lost my mum which was just awful. That was so hard – it was yet another blow. But I found that my course helped me focus on something other than my grief, otherwise depression would have taken over I think.
“My tutors at uni were brilliant at supporting me. When I re-enrolled for my second year, there was a form to fill out online. I ticked the box to indicate that I was suffering from anxiety and depression and the university got in touch with me straight away. They offered me support, counselling and extensions on my work, which luckily I only needed a couple of times.”
Reflecting on her journey so far and where she’s headed next, she continues:
“Criminology was a lot more involved than I thought it was going to be, but I really enjoyed all the different theories and the different laws and sentences passed. It was a great experience and I got to visit court and write court reports – there was also the option to visit a prison. There was quite practical element to it. I’ve made the decision to go on and study the law aspect of Criminology at Master’s level, starting this October. I’ve got a cleaning job at the moment – two hours a night – which should help me financially with that.
“I actually don’t know what career I will do afterwards as I haven’t thought about anything too far into the future. But I really enjoy studying, even though it’s been difficult at times. Before starting my Access course, I was out of education for so long. I think that and also being older, makes me appreciate this learning opportunity more than I would have otherwise.”
As she thinks back to everything that’s happened over the last five years, Christine remains very humble about her recent success and cannot believe how far she has come since the Spring of 2014 when she found the courage to walk away from an unpleasant situation.
She explains: “Things have improved so much and I’ve got my confidence back. I do worry about money and the future, but a lot of the time these things do tend to take care of themselves. I think back to four or five years ago and I realise that I would still be in that same unhappy situation if I hadn’t done something about it. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made, including going to uni. It’s been brilliant and such a good experience.”
“To anyone thinking about doing something similar, I would say don’t even think about it, just go for it – without a doubt. I’ve heard people say they’re frightened of failing, but once you get into the work, you realise that you can do it. Age isn’t a barrier – if you get out of that mindset of thinking that you’re too old, then you really can achieve anything.”