Mum Zena Tebb, who left school with no qualifications after playing truant for years, has begun a degree course at the University of Portsmouth after discovering a love of learning.
And she did it while looking after her four teenage children and nursing her sailor husband Gavin as he recovered from a brain tumour operation.
Zena, 41, of Lee-on-Solent, said she hated school and would usually spend her days out on the road with her lorry driver father while growing up in Lincolnshire. After she moved to Hampshire when Gavin joined the navy eight years ago she was persuaded by a friend to try a free community learning course with the Adult Community College.
“I began with an introduction to Psychology and Criminology and I loved it so much I just wanted to carry on,” she said. “I was reluctant at first because I really didn’t think I was clever enough to learn anything but I got hooked.”
She started a pre-access to higher education course but lost confidence and left to get a job, but she was soon back and went on to take a two-year access to higher education course at St Vincent, where she studied subjects including Social Science, Psychology and Biology as well as GCSE Maths and English in her first year.
It was towards the end of her first year that Gavin was diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent a 12-hour operation. “It was a really stressful and scary time,” said Zena.
“He’s come through it, although he is deaf in one ear and can’t smile properly yet. But the whole thing triggered something in me to think ‘you don’t know what life’s going to bring you’ and I really felt I wanted to do something with my life so I carried on even though it was tough.”
She passed all her exams and has started her degree in Childhood and Youth Studies with Psychology. “I’m a bit nervous and also excited,” she said. “My family have all been really supportive and the teaching staff at St Vincent have been brilliant, they’ve been really supportive and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
She isn’t the only member of the family to have studied at St Vincent. Her son Shane, 18, passed his A Levels this summer and twins Joe and Danny are taking courses in Esports and Uniformed Services. Daughter Jessica, 15, could well be heading there too.
Said Zena: “I’d eventually like to work with teenagers involving psychology or maybe teaching, perhaps a wellbeing officer in a college or school,” she said. “I’m thinking about staying at university after the degree and doing a Masters. I still find it shocking that I’m even having that conversation.
“I would recommend anyone to try a course. You get a little bit of yourself back and get an amazing feeling when you pass, it’s amazing at my age.”
St Vincent College Principal Andy Grant said: “It’s always wonderful to hear stories from students who have been inspired by our fantastic teaching staff to unlock the potential inside them.
“Learning is more than just about gaining qualifications – it is about finding confidence and a sense of self-belief and Zena is a perfect example. She goes on to university with all of our best wishes for the future and we know whatever she chooses to do she will be a success.”