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Becky Ballantyne – Doorstep Saints

Becky Ballantyne, from Tiptree Essex, has been working for the University since 2006 and started her part-time degree in September 2015. Her current role as Registry Officer (Online Processes) involves something virtually every applicant and student at the University has used, from the applicant portal to online matriculation.

Becky Ballantyne at her doorstep

What was your experience of higher education before undertaking the part-time degree?  

Apart from working at the University, absolutely none! I am the youngest of six children and the only one to have a degree… and I let them know it! However, my son, Rory, started at the University of Glasgow in 2016 studying for an MA Hons in Economics and Business and Management. He, too, is a Class of 2020 student. 

What made you decide to do it?

If I’m honest, I was told that I needed a degree to progress any higher in my role. It was a daunting thought; as a lady of a certain age, the idea of real proper studying gave me palpitations! I went out, bought pens, pencils and pads, learnt how to mind map and jumped in with both feet.    

What subjects did you study?  

One of the best things about what is now known as the ‘Combined Studies’ degree is the variety of modules. I was able to study so many different subjects including biology, geology, history, information technology, management, philosophy, physics and astronomy, psychology and social anthropology.  

What were the challenges you faced studying whilst working? How did you juggle home, work and study life?

Whilst studying and working full-time, I was also a Beaver Scout Leader and Chairperson of the village hall committee, so I had an incredibly busy but very fulfilling life. I had decided that I wanted to graduate in the same year as Rory, so I took two modules every semester and managed to finish my degree, and gain a distinction, in four and a half years.

I could not have done it though without the support of my family, friends and colleagues – I took every offer of help that was made. Family life also threw in its own challenges. My father-in-law died at the beginning of 2017, and throughout my studies my mother’s health slowly deteriorated as Alzheimer's stole her away from us. She sadly left us in October of the same year. I really think my studies kept me sane throughout this period; it gave me something else to focus on.  

What were the highlights?  

For me, it was what I learnt about myself. I think I had always been a ‘believer’, but my studies made me question what I thought was truth, view it differently and also consider how it might be perceived by others.

I enjoyed all the subjects I studied, but social anthropology was one of my absolute favourites. I loved the way the classes were run – there were three parts to each: a lecture, a film and a tutorial based on a set reading. I did three social anthropology modules and learnt so much that I now feel like a different person. I never take anything for granted anymore and will form my own opinion rather than take that of others.

What’s it like being a ‘lifer’ at the University? What is the community like?

I think one of the most positive things for me was the Lifelong Learning community. To be able to share your experiences with truly like-minded people is an attribute of the programme that should never be underestimated. We understood the competing priorities of everyday family life and laughed together, cried together, waited for essay results together, revised together, commiserated over exams and celebrated each other’s achievements. We met for coffee in coffee shops run by other Lifelong Learning students and had lunch dates.

I will never forget working at graduation last year and being able to hug my fellow students as they walked off the stage. To be able to cheer them as they participated in the academic progression is another memory that I will always hold dear. Through participation in this programme, I have made Lifelong friends (see what I did there?).

Becky Ballantyne at her doorstep

Did you take part in any traditional student events (for example, Raisin)?

No, sadly not, and we didn’t have academic families either. I would have loved to have had academic parents and siblings!

What’s it like being a ‘non-traditional’ student, and how do you feel your fellow students benefitted from you being in class?  

I was probably a distraction! Participating in discussion was initially hard, but then you quickly learnt that it was ok to have an opinion and if your opinion differed then all the better because it opened deeper discussion, particularly when you felt strongly about a subject. Wherever possible, I tried to lighten the mood if it got very deep and tried to make my fellow students smile.

When I think back over my time as a ‘lifer’, I can honestly say that I have many happy memories. I went on a geology field trip to St Monans and had to be helped down a hill by my fellow students. But when we got to the beach, the truth about what we were looking at was truly amazing – who knew that a place that I had visited so many times had so much history?   

Do you have any plans for further study?

I would love to say yes. Studying part-time was tough though, and I am relishing having time to do the things I wasn’t able to do for those four-and-a-half years, like reading a book for pleasure! I think if I did do any further study it would be in social anthropology. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a high-flying academic and will never be top of the class, but I did love the subject. I learnt how to understand why people act and react in the way they do and the impact that society and upbringing has on our understandings and beliefs.

What would you say to any colleague thinking about studying part-time at the University? 

To coin a phrase – ‘Just do it!’ It’s not easy, it’s definitely not a walk in the park, but with each lecture, tutorial, essay, exam and module you get under your belt, your belief in yourself and your ability will grow. The degree is the end point, the outcome, but there is so much more to the programme than that. You meet folk from every walk of life, people you may not ordinarily have met. That shared goal enables you to build trusted friendships. You will be taught by the best. Every single academic I met on the programme was willing to invest time in me. If I had an issue, wanted clarity or just a general chat about how things were going, they were there for me and willing to listen.

What is your favourite memory (academic or social) of St Andrews?

One of the truly lovely things about St Andrews is the seasons, reflected not just in the trees and the weather, but in the students, tourists and academic events. 

What will you miss most about your time as a student at St Andrews?  

My pals, the camaraderie, learning something new and making decisions about what to study next. 

What advice would you give to new students?

My top ten items of advice would be:

  1. Start with subjects you know, or really interest you, so that you can feel confident in what you’re learning. My job is IT-based, so I started with the IT modules which were great fun.
  2. Following on from the above, start with just one module for your first semester. Later on, if you undertake a 3000 module, my advice would be to consider making that the only module you take that semester. You can then focus solely on that. 
  3. Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time available. Plan ahead and stick to that plan! I hate to admit it, but I was one of those ‘leave it to the last minute’ kind of folk and it never really worked for me – you ask my husband and son they’ll tell you how stressful it got, particularly when I had a midnight deadline and had only started writing my essay conclusion at 11.30pm.
  4. Do the background reading… do you hear me? Do the background reading! Honestly, it really does help in the understanding of a subject. 
  5. Allow the index of a book and online academic searches to become your best friends. It may indeed help your essay to read 42 books on the subject, but in each of those books there may well just be one chapter or paragraph that’s relevant to your specific essay question, so only read and make notes on those that are relevant – it stops you becoming overwhelmed.
  6. Get to know your classmates. Meet them for coffee, discuss your essay topics or share your nervousness over exams. Honestly, you’ll be surprised by how many of them feel the same as you do.
  7. Ask for help if you think you need it. Never be afraid to seek out your lecturer or tutor. That’s what they’re there for! It’s not silly or a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many a lecturer drew me pictures trying to explain concepts, theories or even how to write an essay!
  8. Relax – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. For most Lifelong Learning students, it has been many years since we last wrote an essay, and our confidence levels may be low, so read your essay out loud. You’ll be surprised how much you can improve it by doing so. Welcome the feedback you receive and take on board those comments.
  9. Be aware that different Schools look for slightly different things. Make sure you know what your school is expecting in the way of referencing and layout.
  10. Enjoy your time on the programme, open yourself to learning and welcome any challenges that it brings.

How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic and global events have shaped the Class of 2020? 

We had such plans for graduation. Rory was graduating a week after me and we were having joint celebrations, plans for photos of us together in our regalia, graduation dinners… I can honestly say I was heartbroken that all our plans were crushed by Covid-19. But we’re having a small family garden party at my sister’s house and have ordered gowns and hoods to wear.

I think the words strong and resilient can be used to describe the Class of 2020. Never could we have imagined that our studies would have ended like this. But sitting exams, writing dissertations and final essays during lockdown has proven that we can overcome anything. If you need someone to depend on through a challenging time or with a challenging activity, choose a Class of 2020 graduate. They have proven themselves as capable of overcoming anything and really won’t let you down. 

Where have you spent your time during lockdown?  

Working from home! I have been one of the incredibly fortunate individuals who has continued to work throughout lockdown and beyond. It has meant many hours on Teams dealing with Covid-19 developments and process implementations that had incredibly quick turnaround times, as well as wifi issues when Rory is working from home too and stealing all the bandwidth, but I know that I am one of the fortunate ones. There are many who are not in my position, and I am so grateful that I have retained my post at the University. 

Have you taken any positives from the situation?  

I am in awe of how my unit, Registry, has dealt with all the challenges thrust upon us. Together with the other service units, we are often in the background working away, the swan’s feet peddling through the water helping others to move forward. We embraced lockdown working and pulled together as a real team. We maintained application and decision-making processes, maintained student records, proctored the online exams and created new processes to help colleagues identify where students are so that teaching can be delivered to all.  

I have actually been in the office for three days this week and saw real, in the flesh, colleagues for the first time in over 17 weeks! We socially-distance packed the graduation documentation for sending to our graduates over the coming week or two. Those padded envelopes they’re receiving, Registry (my colleagues and I) manually packed every single one of them! 

Do you plan to come back to celebrate in person in St Andrews in 2021? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?  

You bet I will. I am looking forward to walking across the stage, hopefully to the whoops and cheers of my family and colleagues. They have been through this with me, so it’s only right that they get to celebrate too!