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Wendy Pearson

Thought as a lifelong learner

26th July 2022 was a big day for me. I graduated from my MA in Career Education, Information and Guidance in Higher Education (CEIGHE), and celebrated my 47th birthday.

I began my MA without any intention of completing it. Let me explain this a bit.

My love of learning, and being fortunate to work for supportive employers has resulted in a nice collection of postgraduate awards, certificates and diplomas, but the dissertation always felt like an insurmountable mountain of work and words. I completed my CEIGHE PGDip in 2018 and by that point I was done. I loved the learning and the reading, even writing the assignments, but when it came to the module on research, I felt daunted. I felt that research was something other people did. Anyone who has studied career theories will recognise a ‘horizon for action’ (Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1996) that didn’t stretch far enough.

To understand this, you might need to meet Little Wendy. Born in 1975 in a rural market town, my horizons stretched out across houses, then fields. Most of my family lived no more than a short bike ride away. My family had mostly left school at 16, although I did have one uncle who went to, and then worked in a university. I wanted, or more accurately needed, to make a life outside of my close community. There was something about me that couldn’t flourish in this fertile soil.

An escape plan

A teacher (Mr Middleton – thank you) suggested that I might have a chance to go to polytechnic, and maybe even become a teacher myself, and somehow this off-hand comment stayed with me and began to grow into an escape plan. Although my parents didn’t go to university, my dad served in the army, in a similar bid to broaden his horizons, so my parents supported my bid to keep learning. As well as a supportive and secure family background, I also enjoyed white privilege and the ability to seem more middle class than I really was. Importantly, my education was funded with a student grant, without which many doors would have remained closed. I got my degree, which involved a year working abroad, and there was talk from my lecturers about doing a masters, but the funding process was daunting and I had amassed what seemed like a substantial student debt, although nothing compared to what that would look like today. I had enjoyed a time out from the world and now it was time to go to work.

And so, to work

I dipped my toes into the world of teaching, but quickly realised that this was another environment in which I would not thrive. A process of ‘planned happenstance’ (Krumboltz & Lewin, 2004) led me into recruitment work and then into third and public sector work supporting people to find work. Somewhere along the way, I completed an NVQ4 in Careers Guidance. Eventually I joined the NHS, moved from careers work to leadership development. When I was facing redundancy (for the first time) I remembered how much I had enjoyed careers work and, despite a fairly significant drop in pay, decided to return to guidance work found a role in HE careers, working with MBA students. I noticed that the advisers in the University’s central careers service had postgraduate qualifications, so decided that to progress in my new role I needed to be as qualified. That led me to the University of Warwick and the CEIGHE programme.

My ‘Educating Rita’ moment

I remember going to Warwick for my first residential (all teaching was in person at that time). I was so nervous about being late, I travelled the night before, and arrived on the Warwick campus on a sunny April day. There were students sitting in groups on grassy areas, and it seemed to me that they were all impossibly young, bright and tall. I felt small, old and incredibly out of place.

The next day was a revelation. I met my fellow students and the rhyming couplet of the careers world, Phil and Gill. I found a community of people who were even more into careers work than me, who shared similar frustrations and joys in their work. Eventually, in fits and starts, juggling family, work and study, I completed all six modules for the PGDip, and I was done with Warwick (or so I thought).

Taking my own advice

I had many conversations with the students I worked with about active career management, about thinking ahead, scanning the environment and preparing always for their next move to stay ahead of organisational and economic change. The time came to take my own advice. Organisational change was on the horizon, and rather than wait for my employer to decide my future, I asked myself what I wanted to do next – what I really, really wanted (see the GROW model of coaching).

I had enjoyed working with new starters in my team as well as colleagues doing their own training in careers. I did a bit of Linked In stalking to see how the people had taught me had got into their roles, and in another episode of planned happenstance, Gill had posted about a vacancy in the team at Warwick. I applied thinking that I would get some useful feedback on what I would need to do to get a job like this in the future, so I could make a five-year plan to work toward it.

And I got the job.

Again, I felt a little underqualified, so I joined the university as both a member of staff and a student to top up from the PGDip to an MA, which required me to tackle the dreaded dissertation. It turns out that someone like me CAN do something like that. It wasn’t perfect. I read it again recently, adapting it for possible publication and I can now see my mistakes very clearly, which makes me want to do more research and to do increasing better work each time.

Wendy in her graduation gown smiling

Wendy in her graduation robe graduating in July 2022

A place to grow

I have described some places where I felt I would be unable to flourish. My small town in the 80’s and teaching in the 90’s, in the era of Section 28. My gay identity took a while to work out, and then for me to come out. I keep coming out as I meet new people, and as I write this today. It gets easier as I am more secure in myself and in my work. Now I can bring this part of me together with my identity as a career practitioner and researcher into a project on queer identities in the workplace.

Learning to fly

I have learnt through my work that a huge number of people, just like me, think they can’t or shouldn’t do things, but somehow do them anyway. I have learnt to listen to the quiet voice of self-belief, rather than the shrill cry of self-doubt. I have learnt to take my own advice (at least some of the time) and to give things a shot. I have learnt that sometimes a five-year plan can come to fruition in five minutes, and that this can lead to a wild ride, but if you hold on tight, it feels like flying!