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Alumni perspective: the ups and downs of being a mature international student in the UK

Omolabake Fakunle reflects on her experience applying for and studying at a UK university as a mature international student, business owner and mother

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Dr Omolabake Fakunle

Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Edinburgh
July 7 2021
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My journey to studying abroad in the UK as an international student from Nigeria, a business owner and mum of four nearly didn’t happen. During the process of applying, I came up against barriers because I was an unconventional international student with a child and years of work experience.

But my passion to study overseas motivated me to push past these challenges and persist with my education.

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Before I was accepted by the UK institution where I did my undergraduate degree, I had been rejected by three other universities. One application was turned away because the university doubted my suitability to study abroad as a mother with a young child.  

The agent who was advising me even chastised me for telling the university’s international officer that I had children.

When I decided to make a final attempt to apply to a different university in the UK to study a bachelor’s in business administration, I was instead offered a place on the accounting programme because I had a higher national diploma (HND) in accountancy. However, I was then told that they couldn’t offer me that place because it had been 16 years since I completed my HND.

I explained to the international officer that in the years since my formal education, I had only improved my knowledge. I outlined my experience as a business owner and how it gave me alternative learning opportunities through books, online research and mentoring. I added that I believed that returning to formal education would give me the chance to express my hidden potential and enterprising abilities.

They understood my position, and I was finally offered a place on the business administration degree at the university. And on top of that, I was given a scholarship!  


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However, my dream to study was hit with a third obstacle; I couldn’t bring my children with me. Unfortunately, only students with a government award or those at the postgraduate level are allowed to bring dependents with them on their student visa to the UK.

It was very difficult to choose between following my dream of studying overseas or staying with my young children. We need to revisit this inequitable and inhumane policy. An adult learner studying abroad, or anywhere, should not have to make a choice between parenthood and education.

But one of the reasons I decided to further my studies was to inspire my daughters. One of them once apologised to my spouse for being a girl. She felt inadequate when an older relative insinuated that girls do not amount to much in life. I wanted to lead by example and show them that a woman can be all that she wants to be.

So I chose to leave on my own to study abroad. But I felt drained by the emotional strain of parenting from a distance. During my undergraduate degree I developed terrible panic attacks and one of my daughters became inexplicably ill. My family and I had to travel a lot during that period.

Despite these challenges, I graduated with a first-class degree. I had a number of other firsts as an undergraduate, including attending conferences, founding and chairing the multidisciplinary and multicultural scholars’ society, and volunteering for the local community.

I have since obtained my master’s and PhD in education, passing without corrections, from a Russell Group university. As a postgraduate international student in the UK, I was able to have my children join me during those degrees. Both the panic attacks and unexplained illness stopped once we were living together again.

Studying abroad full time with four young children is hard work. But the pay-off has been worth it.

I now work as an academic and researcher in the UK exploring the intersection of internationalisation, inclusivity, international student experience, employability and education policy. I’ve also started a  blog, Mummyscholar, where I talk about my intercultural experiences and research.

 


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