Search for courses or information

General news

Belong, Believe, Achieve: First-class student Rita earns degree while nursing son through cancer


Rita Edokpayi earned a first-class degree in Early Childhood Education and Care as she cared for her son

Welcome to Belong, Believe, Achieve, a new series of profiles showcasing inspiring students and staff at the University of East London. Each week, we will bring you a new story about someone in our amazing community.

We begin our series with Rita Edokpayi, an Early Childhood Education and Care student who nursed her young son through cancer while studying for her degree. Rita graduated last year with first-class marks. She is now studying for her master's in Special Educational Needs.

When Rita Edokpayi found out her young son had brain cancer, two things helped her through that difficult time – her faith and her studies at the University of East London (UEL).

For the mother of five, learning provided both a reprieve from the present and hope for the future.

Her son is now healthy, and in November 2017 Rita walked across the stage at Indigo at the O2 to receive a first-class degree in Early Childhood Education and Care. She is now working on a master's degree at UEL in Special Educational Needs.

Rita, 48, said, “Coming to uni was something that gave me joy. Uni, for me, at that time, was a place that I could feel useful apart from the church.”

It’s been a long and winding journey – and a journey which Rita hopes will inspire other people.

As a young woman in her native Nigeria, Rita was not encouraged to get an education. Instead, she married in her early twenties and had two young children. Her husband died a few years later and Rita moved to Italy with the help of a cousin who lived there. While in Italy, she remarried and had three more children. In 2011, Rita and her five children moved to Barking and Dagenham. 

When it came time to enrol her youngest kids, twins Joshua and Jesse, in nursery school, Rita said she “couldn’t let them go”.  She decided to do a childcare qualification so she could work where the twins attended school. Rita did so well in the course that, in the autumn of 2013, she decided to enrol in UEL’s New Beginnings programme, which provides an opportunity for non-traditional students to progress to a degree. 

But two months in, Rita’s son Joshua, then four, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour following faints and convulsions. He was transferred immediately to Great Ormond Street Hospital to begin treatment, and Rita dropped out of New Beginnings. In January, Joshua and Rita moved to Oklahoma City for three months so Joshua could receive Proton Beam Therapy unavailable in the UK. The cancer was beaten back.

Once home, Rita sought to re-enrol at UEL. This time she was advised to take a slightly different route and, after doing another childcare qualification, Rita entered UEL’s Early Childhood Education programme in September 2014.

Then, in January 2015, Joshua’s cancer recurred. The little boy endured another eight-hour operation, only for the tumour to return in March. 

During those dark times, Rita, an ordained minister who is the youth pastor at House of Favour Church in Forest Hill, was sustained by her deep faith in Jesus Christ. 

Her studies also provided a much-needed diversion. Rita said she received invaluable support from her fellow students and lecturers at UEL. Her tutors often let her work on assignments away from the classroom. Rita said she would take her books with her to the hospital and study as Joshua was healing.

If she hadn’t enjoyed her studies so much, Rita said she probably would have dropped out of UEL when Joshua’s cancer returned.

She said, “The situation with my son actually helped me with my education. That was the only way I could get myself distracted from what was happening around me.”

Today, Joshua is a happy and healthy eight-year-old doing well at school. “He’s a miracle,” Rita said.

Rita hopes to one day use her skills and knowledge to inspire others – perhaps as a career coach or a lecturer in adult education.

She said, “My pastor called me ‘Woman of the Year’. I am just so, so happy. So happy.”