Debra Wheeler

Deborah Wheeler lives in Easton with four of her five children. She used to be a nurse but now she is a mature student on the Foundation in Arts and Humanities programme in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol.

“I came across the Foundation by accident,” she explains. A single mum on benefits looking after her children by herself for the last 14 years, Deb has suffered from anxiety and depression. However, a couple of years ago, she joined the Single Parent Action Network (SPAN), a community-based organisation providing support, help and training for single parents in Bristol.

“I found myself doing all sorts of courses which kept me busy until I had done them all!” she said. “Then I found out about a six-week programme on women in history run by staff from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol, with SPAN as a community partner. I was hooked.”

The Foundation is a new one-year programme that provides a new route to an Arts degree for students who don’t have the usual qualifications or who have been out of education for a while.

“When the tutor mentioned the Foundation at Bristol University, I thought I’d apply, even though I thought I was never going to be good enough,” she added. “I’ve been out of education for 34 years.”

Deb not only got an interview, she was offered a place, and just a few months later, became part of the first cohort of Foundation students at the University.

“When I heard that I’d got a place, I really couldn’t believe that I was going to be a real student at the University of Bristol,” she said. “When I tell my neighbours and friends, they’re always very surprised when I tell them that I’m a student at Bristol University!”

From day one, Deb’s sense of self-worth has grown and grown. “At the end of the first day, I felt like I was floating three feet above the ground as it was made clear that we had each earned our place here,” she explained. “We all feel part of student life at the University; not left looking in from the outside.”

Deb is one of Foundation students, whose ages range from 19 to 70. All bring different life experiences to the debates in lecture halls and seminar rooms.

“The course is fantastic,” she said. “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to take on any more information, as I’m so busy with the children, but I’ve proved to myself that I can! And also, the more I do, the more I want to do.”

One of the things that Deb found surprising about the course was how the seemingly unconnected list of subjects on the course are joined together by Foundation’s theme ‘What is it to be human?’ .

“The course is so diverse, but each lecture is put in context,” she said. “You find connections wherever you look to help you make sense of things; even through analysing the songs of Bob Dylan, one of the more surprising subjects covered by the Foundation!”

Six months through the course, Deb’s confidence in approaching issues from different perspectives is growing. Her written work so far includes essays on public art and the sexuality of Christ. “I do find writing a challenge, but I’m getting a lot of support from the University and the course tutors”, she said.

“My kids think I have become the most boring person on the planet as I have to spout on about everything”, she adds, laughing. “But they are also seeing some changes as I’m helping them to think about providing evidence to back up statements in their homework! I think they’re really proud of me. I’m going to encourage my daughter to apply!”

The Foundation is a flexible course, with scope to follow your own interests from all that is on offer, and Deb has already developed a passion for modern history, particularly women’s history. She is hoping to go on to do a BA in history at the University next year.

“I enjoy having discussions on a different level now. I was even able to exchange views confidently with another student and our tutor after viewing a film at the Watershed recently. I’d never have thought I could do that.”

“This has been truly life changing. Now I know I can do a degree.”

Debra Wheeler