Our students' inspirational stories


17th Aug 2017

Here at University of Essex Online, we think that every one of our students is inspirational.

Completing a degree online and part-time is never easy, but some of our 2017 graduates have also had to overcome huge obstacles including family tragedies, health problems and more throughout their study journeys. We would like to share some of these stories with you.

We hope that these inspire you to discover that, despite setback and struggles, achieving a qualification is almost always possible.


Jamie Wakeman, BA (Hons) Business & Management

I started my studies in 2012 and all was going smoothly in my career and with my education until 2015, when I discovered that I had a tumour. This turned out to be non-cancerous, but it was very big and required a seven-hour operation to remove it. The surgeon (who was a big rugby fan) described it as being the size of a size three rugby balls!

I recovered from the operation quickly and I was able to carry on with my studies. However, I soon began getting severe inflammation in all my joints. This progressively got worse over Christmas 2015 and into 2016 and I ended up needing three more operations in early 2016. Although this was supposed to help me, it actually made the problems with my joints accelerate and by April/May 2016 I was in incredible pain in more or less every joint of my body.

I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the summer of 2016; this is a degenerative autoimmune system disease, where the immune system becomes defective and attacks the joints until they become fused and deformed. The treatment I am receiving has slowed the degeneration; however, there isn’t a cure and it will continue to get worse. Before my treatment started in the summer of 2016 the disease had progressed to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed, get dressed by myself or do most basic tasks without my wife helping me.

Even now that I’m receiving the treatment I can’t walk further than a few hundred yards at most without a lot of pain and I have permanent and irreparable damage to some joints including my hip, where I need a replacement. However, I am too young at 32 to have that just yet; I need to squeeze out as much as I can from the one I have. I take a number of drugs daily and have weekly injections to treat the condition and manage the pain.

It has been a really tough 18 months, but I am proud that I was able to finish my degree (aided by my Student Adviser’s support and advice). I am also really proud to say that off the back of my degree, I was able to secure a position with Royal Mail, which has given me a good pay rise and step up in the career ladder. I am currently really struggling to stay in employment but I had ambitions before this disease, which is why I took the course, and I am hoping the doctors can improve things further so I can see them out. I take great comfort in the fact I will always have this degree to fall back on in the future.


Amy Sams, BA (Hons) Business & Management

“Months to live”, he said. My heart melted. The oxygen in my lungs felt like it had become non-existent. Tears trickled down my face. The words no father ever wants to say to his family. After this news, I lost my motivation. I lost my passion for anything, including my drive for my studies. I became very angry and sad. “Why me?” I asked myself repeatedly. I made the decision to pause my studies; I was useless in this state. On the 27th July 2014, my world felt like it had turned upside down; there was my father, no feeling, no colour, stiff and cold. I tried my hardest to resuscitate him but nothing. At 10:41 on that gloomy Sunday morning the paramedics pronounced him dead.

Staring at shelves, stacking beauty products as a sales assistant at Marks and Spencer, I knew I wanted more. I was trapped in the world of ‘normality’. Angry customers moaning, managers on power trips, designated breaks at designated times. “Is this really my life?” I thought to myself. I had enough. I need to do it. I need to return. I was failing my father but most importantly I was failing myself. I didn’t persevere through school and college to be at this point at 22 years of age.

I contacted my Student Adviser at the University of Essex Online to enquire about returning to my studies. I knew it would be tough working full time and studying, but hard work pays off and everybody knows nothing in life comes easy. Two weeks into the first module, it was results day. Anxious was an understatement, I didn’t know what to expect after being away from study for over 8 months. I got 60%! I was back and the smiles, passion and my drive had returned. I submitted an application to be a Princes Trust Assistant Team Leader. Why wouldn’t I want to help disadvantaged, disengaged 19-25 year olds? Sharing experiences and changing lives was exactly what I became about.

Later on, a position as a trainee tutor within the department was advertised; I applied for it and got the job! Three days before my dissertation was due to be submitted, my hard drive failed on my laptop. Panic mode set in: all that hard work could have been lost in an instant. Thankfully, YouTube saved me; a video suggested leaving the laptop in a towel for a number of hours and it worked!

My dad used to say, “your degree is your golden ticket, Amy, it will enable you to have endless opportunities”. And it has. That piece of paper is the most important part of me. It has allowed me to further my career and achieve my current position as a Business Lecturer.


Aisling Malone, MBA

I started my studies with University of Essex Online while living in the Middle East as an expat because it gave me the flexibility to gain a British Masters degree whilst continuing to live abroad.

Sadly, just five months after I commenced my studies I was informed by a consultant whilst on vacation back home in Ireland that I had early stage cervical cancer. I returned to the Middle East but was refused treatment as I was an ‘unmarried woman’. I had to leave my job and home in the Middle East and move back to Ireland in October 2014. As I was not in a position to look for a new job during in my first 6 months at home, I was able to capitalize on the flexibility offered as part of the course, and put my free time to good use by doubling up on the modules I was studying!

In April 2015, close to the end of one of my final modules, a close family friend went missing in Glasgow and was sadly found murdered a few days later. This was an extremely difficult time for my family, particularly my sister. However, my tutor and Student Adviser could not have been more supportive during this very difficult time, and allowed me to take some time off and provided me with a one-month extension for my end of module assignment. Unfortunately, this extension meant that I missed the 2016 graduation, and the opportunity to meet the classmates I had come to know over the previous two years.

In late summer last year I completed my studies. Despite the unforeseen events that occurred during my 2.5 years of study I went on to achieve a distinction in my MBA, something that I am immensely proud of given the challenges I faced. A month after our family friend tragically passed away, I started a new job in Ireland with an American pharmaceutical multinational. Since starting this role in May 2015 I have been promoted twice, and am now currently Regional HR Projects Manager – a role which I love. In addition to my full time job, I also secured a voluntary ‘non-exec’ HR Director role with a charity in Ireland; the Irish Foster Care Association, where I provide input, guidance and advice at Board meetings, and support their exec Directors and CEO on an ad hoc basis. I have no doubt that securing both these roles are in large part due to both the personal and professional development that I gained during the two-and-a-half years I spent studying with University of Essex Online.

It was no doubt difficult at times trying to balance study with a full time job and simply having free time to relax and switch off. However looking back, I’m delighted to have completed my course –and it has been a bonus to complete it with a distinction.


Sylvia Roberts Law, BA (Hons) Business & Management

I never thought I could achieve a degree but University of Essex Online gave me an opportunity to challenge myself and achieve a qualification using a flexible and accessible learning model. It was the perfect option; I could combine my studying with two decades of management experience and knowledge.

Studying began well, although going back into learning was a little difficult while I was also balancing a demanding job and lengthy commute. I developed good study skills which have been useful in coaching my team and students I work with.

I have changed jobs twice while studying moving into similar roles with more responsibility and managing a larger team. I have also applied some of the learning into my current role. I have inspired my daughter and demonstrated to colleagues that blending work and study is possible – but it does take planning and determination!

My daughter was three years old when I started studying but 18 months later she contracted pneumococcal meningitis and became critically ill. It happened shockingly quickly, but thankfully she recovered. However, five days before Christmas, she lost her hearing, which was the bullet we thought we had dodged. Three months of assessments followed, with cochlear implants considered her best chance to hear again. It was an emotionally difficult time, during which constant evaluations on her development were undertaken. Hunni learned to lip read naturally within weeks but the future remains uncertain with the life changing effects of meningitis.

In 2014, I cracked my coccyx and broke my wrist whilst roller skating, requiring an operation to wire my wrist. It left me unable to use my laptop and in considerable pain. A few months later my mum was admitted to hospital with heart failure, giving way to stress and the early stages of dementia.

I didn’t attend my Foundation Degree graduation as I was embarrassed it had taken 6 years to achieve but inspired by a difficult module, I decided to continue onto the BA Hons top-up.

Within the final six months of achieving my goal, my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It was devastating but I continued studying, advising University of Essex Online that I may need to pull out. I completed in March 2017 and my dad sadly passed away just seven weeks later. I had hoped he would see by certificate and graduation photograph but sadly not, although he knows I achieved.

I’m proud to be the first person in my with my degree, although I feel I could have tried harder despite facing considerable personal challenges. I have studied during all my holidays since 2009 so I will enjoy future holidays when I can truly relax. It has been a hard-earned degree and I am pleased I didn’t give in.


Stella Ejangu, BA (Hons) Criminology and Criminal Justice

I chose to study with University of Essex Online because it was the perfect option for me as a single mother who wanted to accomplish my goal of acquiring the degree I had always wished for.

As a result of my experiences as a child back in Africa, I have always been fascinated with anything related to criminals and the justice system.

When I moved to England, I discovered that I could not go to university to study because of Home Office restrictions. After I settled, all I had in mind was to study criminology. I was a single mother and working full time in a call centre when I started this course.

I am not going to say that it was an easy task; at times I felt that I could not do it and nearly gave up on the course on numerous occasions (especially when my little girl could keep me up at night and I would have to go to work first thing in the morning).

When I was in my last year of study I got engaged and planned to get married after my studies, but my only sister who was to be my maid of honour was diagnosed with cancer and given only six weeks to live. We decided to move the wedding date forward, and as we did not have enough money to hire someone to organise the wedding I decided to do that on my own (with the help of friends) while also looking after my bedridden sister as well as working full time and caring for my daughter.

I had doubled up on the course modules and I was writing my dissertation and it was a stressful and tiring time. My love for a challenge motivated me to keep going to the end. I have always believed in not quitting once I have started something, which is why I declined to follow the advice from my lecturer to drop one or two of the modules to make it easier for me.

My sister lost her battle with cancer just a day before the wedding; the wedding went ahead but we decided to dedicate the day to her memory.


Naomi McLaughlan, BA (Hons) Business and Marketing

After considering for a long time whether I should share part of my personal story openly, I have come to the conclusion that my struggles over the past years may actually motivate somebody who might be on the fence of taking the route of advancing their education, despite their circumstances.

I am a single parent of three; my youngest daughter is autistic and has a rare chromosome disorder, which means she struggles with daily routines and needs a full-time carer (me). She is 9 years old now and I have taught her at home since she was 5 because there is no available school space for her in our city or surrounding area. In addition to home-schooling my youngest, I also operate an online based micro business, which specialises on helping business owners with their business and marketing strategy, content creation and implementation of social media marketing.

Six years ago, in spring 2011, I came to the UK with nothing but my three children (then 3, 9 and 14 years old) and the aim to advance and build something here. We literally started from scratch, initially living in a B&B (paid for with my savings) and then moving into a 2-bed flat and a year later into a 3-bed house. We had no furniture, cutlery or any other items, which meant I had to slowly purchase all necessities again.

At times, we didn’t even have enough money to buy food; it was a really difficult start. I also quickly learned that the qualifications I gained in Germany didn’t help me here; hence, I started my business instead and searched for a degree program to gain an academic qualification that is valued in the UK and elsewhere. I joined the BA (Hons) Business and Marketing degree programme in 2013 and although none of my family members live in the UK and I had no support during my studies, it did not stop me.

Prior to coming to the UK, I had spent almost a year in Ghana, where I had hoped to live for the rest of my life after my mother’s sudden death. However, I realised that I could not stay in Ghana due to visa issues, so I had to make a decision to either move back to Germany (where I am from originally) or elsewhere. My ex-partner is British, so I thought it may be a good idea to live in the UK.

What got me through my struggles was the knowledge that the BA degree will give me the necessary advantage to either join the job market or to use it to grow my business. Also, the weekly interaction with fellow students and my tutors and seeing the results I achieved with each module gave me the encouragement to continue, despite my emotional and financial struggles. Each of the assignments and the feedback I received gave me confidence that I am doing ’the right thing’ for myself and my children.

I strongly believe that anybody can succeed with anything they set their mind to, just as I did.


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