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Belong, Believe, Achieve: Dr Caroline McGlynn helps students without traditional qualifications enter university

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Caroline runs the UEL programme where she got her own start as a mature student

'Belong, Believe, Achieve' is a series of profiles showcasing inspiring students and staff at the University of East London (UEL). Each week, we bring you a new story about someone achieving great things in our amazing community.

Caroline McGlynn may not have entered university until later in life, but she more than made up for lost time. She earned a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s, which in turn led to a PhD and time studying in The Gambia.

Now, Caroline runs the University of East London (UEL) programme where she got her start: New Beginnings, an innovative course which has helped hundreds of people without traditional qualifications access a university education. 

She said, “To be part of a programme that breaks down barriers and opens the university is very exciting and fulfilling.  It is also very emotional, as many of the students have difficult histories and stories.  
“Emotions range from pure frustration when I am unable to help an applicant to pure joy when they pass and move on to a degree.” 

Caroline held a number of different jobs when she was younger, including a position as PA to the CEO of an international company in the City of London. 

She said, “I wanted to start a family, so I stopped work to focus on having children, with the expectation I’d return to work when they were a little older.” 

But her second child was born with a complicated medical condition, which meant Caroline had to put her career plans on hold for longer than anticipated as her daughter’s condition required around-the-clock care. 

Caroline said, “After a few years I felt I needed to be doing things to keep my mind active and learning, so I did a GCSE in maths, an A-Level in psychology, and courses in sign language and first aid, among others.”

Some words of encouragement from a psychology teacher spurred Caroline to think about going to university. 

She said, “I remember someone from UEL coming to the college to tell us about the university and its New Beginnings course. I ended up doing it, and it gave me the confidence to apply for university.  I finally felt able to put my head up and say ‘I’m a good student and I deserve a place at university’”.   

Caroline was an outstanding student, completing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and master’s degree in research methods, and then pursuing a PhD where she focused on languages used in primary school teaching in The Gambia.

She said, “I’m fortunate to have been able to travel across the whole country, learn one of the local languages and live in non-tourist areas. I spent several months in each of three different communities and learned so much about the country, the people and the teaching practices.  I also learned a lot about myself.”

The Gambia has become a second home for Caroline, and she makes regular trips there to teach and holiday. 

She said, “I have a house in a remote village where there is no electricity or running water. It’s vastly different to life here where we are totally dependent on technology.  Even though the life there is physically challenging I go to rest and recuperate, to reset my priorities.

New Beginnings gives people from all backgrounds and ages a chance to pursue a degree course at UEL, and is part of the University’s commitment to widening access to higher education. Going from mature student on the New Beginnings course to its academic lead has given Caroline a unique perspective which helps these students immensely.  

She said, “I feel really proud when an applicant meets one of their goals or overcomes a challenge. The course is about getting people onto undergraduate degrees but it is also about personal growth and individual development. New Beginnings celebrates all the achievements, however big or small.”

New Beginnings continues to go from strength to strength. The team, which includes UEL staff members Wasan Shoresh and David Murray, recently launched an accelerated version of the course.

Caroline concluded, “I love walking around each of the campuses and meeting ex-New Beginnings students telling me how they’re getting on.  It’s great to hear of their successes.  I’m like a mother hen with hundreds of chicks!”