“Returning” by Andrea Woodward

A white woman with long blond hair smiles at the camera
(c) Andrea Woodward

Andrea Woodward is a York St John English Literature PhD candidate. Andrea, who started her HE journey at 30, could have taken a very different path in life. Here she reflects on her experiences as a returning student, recalling the day as an undergraduate when she thought she would give it all up – and why she didn’t!

I first came to York St John as an undergraduate student in English Literature in 2006. I was 30 years old.

As a mature student who’d spent 15 years out of full-time education, I quickly felt overwhelmed and more than a bit out of place. Those classmates who’d arrived fresh out of college seemed to radiate knowledge in seminars, knowledge that my first essay results suggested to me I didn’t have. After several weeks into the first semester, I felt it would be for the best if I withdrew from the course, believing that I’d never succeed.

I then attended a seminar for the module Reading Texts in which we’d been studying Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas”. We were put into small groups to discuss the story and, as had become the norm, I listened rather than join in the discussion, feeling I had nothing of value to add. The module leader, perhaps noting my uncertainty, joined our group and asked me directly for my thoughts on the story. I felt incredibly foolish stating that it reminded me of The Wicker Man and Pandora’s Box in places, not necessarily two stories you’d automatically put together in the same sentence. However, rather than being laughed at or ridiculed as I’d been dreading, I was surprised when the others in the group agreed with my observations and went on to expand the discussion. It was at this point I experienced a ‘Eureka’ moment, or as I now call it, my Pandora’s Box moment. Needless to say, I did not withdraw but successfully completed my literature degree with York St John, and after working in HE administration for many years, I’m back to do a PhD where it all began. It is no exaggeration to say those 3 years as a St John’s undergrad very simply changed my life and very much for the better, and has proven priceless in developing confidence in my own capabilities.

Starting a PhD at 45 was slightly less daunting than starting an undergraduate degree at 30, but only just.

What is most notable and comforting to this old graduate, is the familial aura of the campus that is uniquely York St John, is undiminished. The familiarity as a returning student to the place where I found support and inspiration before gave me the confidence to pursue my academic interests at the next level.

Of course, the campus has changed somewhat in places. The Student Union building used to be where Cordukes is currently, and the amazing Creative Centre replaces the old accommodation blocks. However, the quad is still reassuringly Narnia-ish.

I have many fond memories from when I was an undergraduate and whilst the library has had a few tweaks, it does remain pretty much as it was, back in the day. These days I spend my time in the library researching the narratives surrounding corporeal autonomy and coerced reproduction in post-9/11 horror and dystopic fiction. My early interest in horror was not misplaced! I am interested in how compliancy, even indifference, to changes in the political climate can lead to the degradation of the rights of the individual. See, for example, the recent television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I can remember when Costa in Fountains first opened, and was usually the first bleary-eyed caffeine seeker in the queue on a morning, after spending most of the early hours working in the library. I’ll also confess I used to live on their ham and cheese croissants through most of my second year. And probably my third if I’m being honest.

It’s good to be back, coffee in hand!