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20 years ago, I pulled up to the steps at Ulster University, Coleraine in the car with my husband driving. I looked at the steps, I looked at my husband and I said, “drive on!” I was in my 3rd year as an English student; I was disinterested, demotivated and couldn’t bear the thought of going to one more lecture or seminar. The steps that dominate the landscape at the Reception of UUC had become a symbol of oppression to me. Every morning, as soon as I saw them, I felt dread flood through my veins, and I wanted to run in the opposite direction.

And so it continued till the end of the year, when I miraculously got my degree and felt free of the shackles of education.

Fast-forward to 2019 and I am a mature student at Ulster University, Jordanstown studying a Msc in Communication, PR and Political Lobbying.

For the last few weeks I have spent every Monday immersed in a world of lectures and seminars with a class of interesting, talented people who challenge me, and I love it.

As I live in Coleraine, it makes sense that I use the library facilities there. On Thursdays and Fridays, you will find me eagerly making my way to UUC car park right after school drop-off. There you will see me skip up those front steps with an optimism that fills me in quite a wonderfully opposite way to the dread that almost suffocated me 20 years ago.

So, what’s the difference? Why the change of mind and motivation?

Truthfully, it’s a host of complex reasons that span my life, my experiences so far, my mindset and self-belief and my changing hopes and dreams. But I think I can boil it down to one word… GROWTH.

Firstly, I believe I have grown in self-awareness. Time can be a gracious gift that allows us to get to know ourselves better. I am grateful for the last 20 years of marriage, kids, a variety of work experiences and even feeling frustrated and having to ask myself hard questions about my identity and purpose. I feel more sure of the answers.

Secondly, I have grown in confidence. Anyone that has known me a long time would probably say that confidence is not something that I have ever lacked. Yes, I am an extrovert, but confidence is something much deeper and more sophisticated than what we present on the outside. Confidence grows with life experience, with meeting challenges, with overcoming difficulties and then realising I can do hard things.

Thirdly, I have grown in motivation. Nothing motivates like a second chance!

For many years I have wanted to go back to university to prove to myself that I can be a good student. Moreover, I wanted to return to do something worthy of my time, which I trust this course is. So far, I have learned more about an industry that I have long been interested in. I believe that my thinking skills have sharpened already because I am interested.

I have grown in so many significant ways that now I feel ready to put right the wrongs of my previous university effort. It is time to rewrite my story.

I don’t want to settle for a story of not trying my best, but I want to write a story of effort and commitment.

I don’t want to settle for a story of average achievement, I want to write a story of success to the best level I can achieve.

I don’t want to settle for a story of regret that I didn’t try, I want to write a story of courage and redemption of my past mistakes.

It just so happens I am not alone.

In my class of 12 people, a quarter of them are women just like me. Brave women in their 40’s taking on a new challenge because they believe that it’s not to late to rewrite their story, for their narrative to head in a fresh, new direction.

We are part of a new generation which has been tagged the ageless generation because we don’t feel like we are told we should feel at our age. In our 40’s/50’s we have similar likes and desires as our millennial counterparts. We feel young, we want to dress young, we are thirsty for all sorts of adventure and we believe we have something to offer.

Previously, we would have been described as “middle aged” with its connotations of gardening and elastic waistbands. Instead, we reject that notion of becoming middle aged like our parent’s generation. We don’t want our age to define us.

(As PR students it is interesting to watch the marketing industry slowly wake up to this huge marketing opportunity. Especially as research shows that women in their 50’s have the greatest spending power, notably in the huge cosmetics industry.)

I am happy to be counted amongst such brave, creative and strong women such as Oprah, Michelle Obama or JK Rowling.

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I may feel a bit overwhelmed when I look at those reading lists and the long list of assignments due in the next few months. But it’s nothing like the dread I felt looking at those UUC steps 20 years ago.

This is a mountain that I can climb because I have learned that I can stretch; I can learn; I can grow; I can do hard things.

I am ready to rewrite my story.

Danielle McElhinney is a full time Masters student in Communication, PR and Political Lobbying at Ulster University, Jordanstown. She can be found at Twitter: @daniellemac33 and on LinkedIn:

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