CHANGE YOUR STORY
At the heart of our campaign are our learning ambassadors – take a look below at their inspirational stories.
They have all taken the first step to turn their lives around to build a better future for themselves, their family and their community. Adult learning has been key to each of their success stories and for many a lifeline. Become inspired by clicking on any of the images below to read or watch their story. This is what adult learning can do for you, you can change your story too.
Tarek Zou Alghena
Tarek Zou Alghena fled Syria when civil war broke out in 2011 and came to the UK, less than four years ago to build a…Read Tarek's Story
Tarek Zou Alghena
Tarek Zou Alghena fled Syria when civil war broke out in 2011 and came to the UK, less than four years ago to build a new life. He was just 23 when he was forced to leave – his hometown had become a battleground in the civil war. “I was scared for my life,” said Tarek, “I have four younger sisters, three brothers and my parents. We all left together, they now live in Sweden.”
Tarek was a businessman, meeting friends at cafés and restaurants, before everyday life became a danger. During his family’s escape they became separated – with Tarek arriving alone in the UK in 2015 after spending years in exile in Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. “I left with nothing” said Tarek. He spent a month at the refugee camp in Calais before making his way to the UK. “It was bad at the camp. Life was difficult, we lived in tents most of the time. Agencies gave us food, but it was a scary place to be.”
In the UK, Tarek was provided with refugee status and settled in Cardiff after he obtained asylum. He spoke no English, and there was a six-month waiting list for entry onto the nearest formal ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course, so he set about attending every voluntary English class he could find.
“When I arrived, it was sad being on my own. All I could say in English was ‘Hi, (I want to go) London, Cardiff, Manchester whatever the name of the cities, and some very few words.”
For the first few months, he attended survival English classes, delivered by volunteer teachers and university students at the Welsh Refugee Council and the Oasis Centre. As soon as a place became available, Tarek started studying formal ESOL classes at Cardiff and Vale College. Two years later, he applied for a foundation degree and, due to his refugee status, was able to take part in the University of South Wales’ Refugee Sanctuary Scheme. The scheme provides free intensive English preparation for refugees who want to study at university but don’t speak English as a first language.
Tarek was taught on a three month-intensive English course, which he passed last year, allowing him to successfully complete the first year of his university course. He said, “I’d be studying for about twelve hours a day. Sometimes I didn’t sleep, I’m always learning. I work at it every day.” He has finished the foundation year and in September starts the first year of a three-year degree in Quantity Surveying, and Commercial Management.
“I loved my old life,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how hard that is, having to leave and start somewhere new when you don’t want to. In your home, you have rights. When your country is broken down and becomes weak, you have no rights, you have no voice. Learning English has changed my life, I can have a voice. Maybe I’ll stay in Wales, maybe travel the world or maybe one day it will be safe for me to return to Syria.”
Mike Chick of the University of South Wales, nominated Tarek, he said: “Tarek’s experience shows how important ESOL is to the lives of refugees who seek sanctuary in Wales and the crucial role that voluntary organisations, further and higher education working together can play in integration and community cohesion. A route for migrants to survive and thrive!”
“Tarek is an example of the resourcefulness and stamina of the human spirit. His journey illuminates the tremendously important role that adult education can play in shaping lives.”
Having the opportunity to learn Welsh again was a key factor in Rhiannon Norfolk’s decision to move back to Wales. She inherited her love of…Read Rhiannon's Story
Having the opportunity to learn Welsh again was a key factor in Rhiannon Norfolk’s decision to move back to Wales. She inherited her love of ‘Welshness’ from her mum and dad, who are originally from South Wales, and used to take her on holidays very summer to Gwynedd.
These family holidays inspired her to study at Bangor University where she planned to become proficient in the language, but her busy university schedule meant she had to drop her Welsh lessons. “I got on with life, as you do, but Wales has always felt like home and I had this yearning for the language.”
It wasn’t until she was living in Wiltshire years later that a chance encounter would see Rhiannon return to Welsh. “I saw a poster for a folk band called Calan, who were playing at the town hall in Chippenham,” she said. “I went along on my own and loved it. I felt a huge connection to the beautiful sounds of the Welsh language with the moving music, and it brought back some of what I had learned.”
When she saw a job advertised in her field of health service evaluation, she applied, got the job and moved to Wales. A year later, she has almost completed a fast-track foundation-level Welsh course at Penarth Learning Community.
“I felt really nervous going along but I was assured that I could build on the language skills I already had, despite them being rusty,” she said. “I worried I’d be so far behind everyone else with my very basic Welsh and that I hadn’t learned for 13 years, but it was brilliant. Everyone was so welcoming and it’s amazing how much you remember.”
Rhiannon attends the class for two hours every week alongside Saturday schools. She joins a reading group at Palmerston Adult Community Learning Centre in Barry and has attended a Welsh residential weekend with her mum, Gill, who is also learning at classes near her home in Monmouth. After receiving outstanding results for her entry exam, Rhiannon is now getting ready to sit her foundation assessment. “Learning Welsh has been a complete joy for me, I finally feel like I’m home.”
Rhiannon suffers with depression, anxiety and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, which requires the use of walking sticks or a wheelchair and causes her constant pain and fatigue.
She said: “Coming to Welsh classes has made a great difference to my mental health and I take it at my own pace, taking a break in class if I need to. Learning gives me structure and a place to make friends. It’s helped me to keep my brain active and given me a sense of purpose and achievement. Giving up on Welsh was always a regret and I wanted to sort that out, and I feel so fulfilled now that I have.”
Suzanne Condon nominated Rhiannon, she says “It is clear that other learners in class love to practice with her, she’s brilliant at encouraging them to say as much as they can. She’s a learner on a mission and she inspires others.”
Thomas Ferriday has achieved a Level 3 Brickwork Diploma and now works with Cardiff and Vale College as a technician in the Construction Department where…Read Thomas's Story
Thomas Ferriday has achieved a Level 3 Brickwork Diploma and now works with Cardiff and Vale College as a technician in the Construction Department where he mentors new learners at the start of their journey.
Tom has come a long way, having spent years living with different family members due to problems at home, before moving into a bedsit on his own when he was 17. With little family support, he visited homelessness charity Llamau, who provided him with a support worker to help with sorting out his finances and day-to-day living skills. “I worked out that I needed £5 a day to buy food, pay bills and get myself to college,” he said. “I didn’t have much money, and there were days I barely had enough for lunch, but I kept going to college because I knew it would help me to get a job and have a brighter future.”
He’d left school with no GCSE’s, he was bullied and homelife was difficult. “I told myself from a young age that I was going to work hard and take every opportunity to get away from troubles and find something I loved. I tell the students the same thing.”
After school Tom tried a Painting and Decorating course, he said, “I didn’t do well on the course, but I knew I had lots to offer so I kept trying.” Watching motivational clips on YouTube gave him even more drive to do his best. He said, “There was a guy with severe disabilities who had done amazing things, he hadn’t let anything hold him back, and he was studying at university. I thought, there are so many people going through hardships. Many people have difficult stories, but they’ve changed their lives by learning.”
Thomas applied for 40 jobs and didn’t receive one interview, but he was determined to get into work, so he enrolled at Cardiff and Vale College on a Level 2 Brickwork Diploma.
Taking extra classes in Maths and English he progressed onto the Level 3 course. Now Thomas is hoping his skills will help him to achieve his ambition of travelling the world.
“I’d love to work on building projects in Africa,” he said. “I’ve saved some money and hope to plan something for later this year.”
Brickwork lecturer, Paul Sebburn who nominated Thomas said, “His work ethic was fantastic. From day one he wanted more work, he was never late, had 100% attendance, and always turned up to his lessons with a smile on his face. He’s worked so hard to get where he is and will be the first person to say he hasn’t found the academic study easy, but he’s persevered.”
Thomas added: “I’ve always struggled, but I’ve always been determined to do my best and do extra to achieve my goals. Working hard has given me so much.”
John began his learning journey with the Open University in 2010, graduating seven years later with a BSc (Hons) in Health Sciences, an achievement he…Read John's Story
John began his learning journey with the Open University in 2010, graduating seven years later with a BSc (Hons) in Health Sciences, an achievement he describes as “the most extraordinary of my life.”
John had struggled to learn at school, he had severe dyslexia and ADHD and had been told that “he would amount to nothing and did not deserve to be taught with others”. He says, “I was constantly made to feel and look stupid. Mocked by my teachers and belittled in front of other children. I was made to stand on a chair and asked to read in front of the class. They made an example of me, not realising I desperately needed help. My confidence was crushed, and I developed a stutter.”
Joining the army after leaving school, John saw active service as an Army Commando in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pushed to his physical limits he had a successful military life, but he continued to struggle with the personal demons seeded in his childhood.
He had never told anyone that he couldn’t read or write. It was only when he left the Army in 2000 and was working as an Ocean Paramedic, that his secret was discovered. “I used to memorise everything I learned by heart. The military is very physical, so it was easy to hide. But I always knew I’d be terrible in an exam.” His instructor noticed something was wrong and told him he was bright enough to progress in his dream career in medicine – and encouraged him, aged 34, to rejoin education.
John made nervous enquiries with the Open University. Assessments for dyslexia were made and with the support of tutors he progressed well. He was then diagnosed with a visual disorder associated with dyslexia. Despite needing to take longer to read through text books and complete assignments, John kept going, investing time and effort in mastering assistive technology. Working off shore brought additional challenges at exam time but these were overcome by recruiting the Ship’s Captain to act as an invigilator!
Graduating was a hugely emotional day. “There are no words to describe the dedication, patience and encouragement I received from my tutors. I started with them as a broken soldier, but now after a long journey I have progressed and I’m running my own teaching medical company.”
John is now a senior medical officer, travelling the world, responsible for the health of a crew of 150 and running his own medical business, PATRONAS Rescue International. His business is based on the principle of supporting others, teaching pre-hospital emergency care to teams of medics and supporting medical evacuations abroad and in the UK. He says, “If only my teachers had believed in me and not dismissed me as a ‘naughty’ child. I never imagined life could be like this. I was failed by education the first time, but I’m so glad I was given a second chance.”
Following his graduation John has become an Open University Ambassador, raising over £40,000 which has been used to establish a Disabled Veterans Scholarship Fund.
Jimama (JJ) was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, in 1995. She lost her entire family during the civil war and was saved by family…Read Jimama's Story
Jimama (JJ) was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, in 1995. She lost her entire family during the civil war and was saved by family friends who managed to bring her to the UK, aged seven, when they fled. Unable to speak English and with no formal education or family in the UK, Jimama was moved between several foster homes. This unsettled and chaotic childhood caused disruption to JJ’s education and heightened her anxieties, resulting in extreme shyness.
Aged 10, Jimama was diagnosed with dyslexia. Learning support was provided which helped but she still found school challenging and achieved G grade GCSEs.
However, her educational journey after leaving school set Jimama on the path to success. She enrolled in a level 1 Hairdressing course at Gower College in Swansea where her learning needs were recognised and supported from the outset, she began to flourish and her true sunny personality shone through. She went on to study level 2 and 3 qualifications in Hairdressing and Beauty Therapy, alongside this she continued to improve her essential skills. Now 21, JJ will qualify and finish college this June and will set sail for adventures – literally – having landed a job as a cruise-ship spa worker.
Jimama says, “All the challenges have made me even more determined to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been given. I would say if you’ve got a dream and you want it badly enough then work hard and don’t let anything get in your way. Stability isn’t something that I’ve had much of in my life, I lost both my parents at a young age, but I’m sure they’d be proud of me right now. Coming to college and getting my qualifications has brought me structure, friendships and a future.”
Andrea Garvey has always had an ambition to study law – however she became a mum at the age of 16 and by the age…Read Andrea's Story
Andrea Garvey has always had an ambition to study law – however she became a mum at the age of 16 and by the age of 21 she was bringing up two children on her own. She had dismissed her ambitions as a “pipe dream”.
Severe anxiety attacks and depression restricted opportunities for work, but rather than accepting this she pushed herself to move forward. She completed an Open University one-year course, gaining a certificate in Health and Social Care. She said, “Having two children to look after I knew I had to keep fighting the urge to hide myself away. I began distance learning which helped me channel my nervous energy, I was determined to work and be a good role model.”
Andrea’s next step was to volunteer for two years in a residential home, gaining NVQ Levels 2 and 3 in Health and Social Care and then she began working with the Shaw Trust, supporting people with disabilities.
Still battling mental health issues, she says, “Bizarrely, the one thing that helped me was studying. It enabled me to focus on something else instead of my problems and became a blessing in disguise.”
Completing a Level 5 Management award proved to Andrea that she could achieve at higher levels of learning and when faced with redundancy, she began thinking again of her ambitions in law. “I had convinced myself that my legal ambitions were over, and I had missed my chance – but I didn’t believe it. Regardless of my age, this was my life and for once I was going to please myself – I was going to complete a law degree.”
At the age of 48, she enrolled at Swansea University for a full-time law degree. She says, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had no savings and I’d not been in a classroom for more than 30 years.”
Daughter Lucie nominated Andrea, she said “Mum’s life has been hard, her strength of character is inspirational – despite having set-backs she is taking control of her life and following her dreams. She had mountains of work to complete at home, whilst trying to manage on student loans as a single parent. Nobody believed she would last long … they obviously did not know my mother well enough. She would be working late into the night. Her determination to fulfil a lifelong ambition drove her on.”
When Andrea’s sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she started caring for her as well as continuing to study, refusing to defer her studies. Her sister’s death left her devastated but more determined to finish and complete her exams.
Last summer, Andrea graduated, 35 years after leaving school with no qualifications. “I was so excited, I took the gown home and wore it around the house before returning it the next day.” She’s now halfway through a Master’s in advanced law and criminology and is working towards qualifying as a solicitor. “There are so many people facing the same problems as me. It is important for them to know – we may be down but we are not out! I want young mums, anyone who has lost their confidence and belief to know – don’t give up – it is not forever – not if you don’t want it to be.”
“I chose to rise one step at a time and accepting the good with the bad. Don’t think too much about hurdles and don’t look too far ahead. You will be surprised at how much you can achieve – I know because I achieved my dream.”
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