A former hospitality worker who pursued her passion for the past years after ill-health prevented her from studying has today graduated with a First Class degree.
Rhiannon Jenkins, 27, who progressed to her Archaeology degree from Cardiff University’s Exploring the Past pathway programme, will celebrate her achievements as part of the Class of 2021 at this year’s virtual graduation ceremonies.
But a degree in this subject wasn’t always part of Rhiannon’s plan.
Ill-health meant that her original opportunity to go to university, where she was started a degree in economics and business, was cut short after the first few weeks. She made the difficult decision to return home to Llantwit Fardre.
When her health improved, she moved closer to Cardiff and worked in cafés and restaurants for four years. One day in work, she came across a leaflet advertising the Exploring the Past Pathway programme.
She said: "Since school I had been interested in history and archaeology and I was always watching YouTube videos about that sort of thing. By this point, I was bored working in hospitality and thought the course sounded interesting and different. I wanted to give it a go."
Exploring the Past offers adult learners, who have often been away from formal education or who are without any previous relevant qualifications, the chance to experience learning and teaching similar to a first year of undergraduate study. After successfully completing the Pathway programme, learners are eligible for an interview to progress onto a degree scheme.
While studying her BSc in Archaeology, Rhiannon decided to take all the opportunities available to her by participating in a Cardiff University Research Opportunities Programme at CAER Heritage Hidden Hillfort , attending Bluedot Festival with the Guerilla Archaeology Collective and contributing to a project which saw her speaking to local school children about history.
"I loved those experiences and had a lot of fun while increasing my knowledge at the same time," Rhiannon recalled.
After graduation, Rhiannon plans to study for an MSc in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University alongside her new job working part-time in the heritage sector.
She said: "I really didn’t think I’d be graduating with a First when I joined up, but I set myself the goal to get high marks and I have no regrets.
"Exploring the Past has helped change my life."
Rhiannon is one of 56 Exploring the Past learners to have progressed to a degree since it started a decade ago and one of 26 who have completed their degrees so far.
"The most amazing, inspirational people"
Hayley Bassett, 50,from Port Talbot in South Wales, was part of the programme’s very first cohort, joining in September 2010.
A mum and full-time carer for her daughter who has learning difficulties, mobility difficulties and autism, Hayley has since progressed onto a part-time degree in Ancient and Medieval History, received a scholarship for her Master’s degree in Medieval British Studies and is currently carrying out postgraduate research as part of her PhD.
Hayley said: "I enrolled on the inaugural Exploring the Past modules in September 2010 because I wanted to learn something new, to find an interest that I could enjoy away from the stress of daily life. I had no real objective in mind, but after the first two modules, I knew that I wanted to continue studying.
"Exploring the Past gave me more than an introduction to university education, it taught me skills that I have been able to apply to all aspects of my life. The constructive feedback and pastoral support of the tutors gave me confidence in myself and faith in my abilities, something which I had been lacking before.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented Exploring the Past tutors and students with new challenges and over the course of 2020-21, the Pathway was delivered online for the first time.
"The teaching I received was fantastic!"
Lisa Mapley, 47, from Cwmfelinfach was among those who joined during the pandemic. She felt studying a degree was never an option for her. But Lisa had always wanted to learn more and knew she was capable of studying at university; she just didn’t know how to start, until a friend told her about Cardiff University’s Pathways to a degree initiative.
She said: "When I was younger, I’d been expected to leave school, start working and earning money. Later, I was in my forties, disabled and feeling low, when I first heard about Exploring the Past. I have always had a passion for history and knew I would love to learn more about the subject.
"I completed the Pathway during lockdown, when all learning was delivered online. The teaching I received was fantastic! I had so much support too. I was taken through the process of applying for my degree and the funding options available to me including help from the Disabled Students’ Allowance. And now I have completed my first year studying a BA in Ancient and Medieval History at Cardiff University.
Dr Dave Wyatt, Reader in Early Medieval History and Community Engagement and the founder of Cardiff University’s History, Archaeology and Religion Pathway, said: "I really am so proud of every one of the 56 learners who have progressed onto degree programmes since we started. Every single one of their journeys is an inspiration!
Exploring the past film
Over the course of its ten years, the Exploring the Past programme won a Highly Commended award from the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning and launched its own free lecture series in collaboration with the Historical Association.
Launched in 2011, Exploring the Past was Cardiff University’s first ever Pathway to a degree programme. Reflecting the institution’s commitment to widening participation in Higher Education, the initiative has since grown exponentially, offering ten programmes covering areas including English Language and Literature, Creative Writing, Philosophy, Social Sciences Business, Healthcare, Modern Languages, Translation, Journalism, and International Relations and Politics.
Find out more about Cardiff University’s Pathway to a degree programmes.
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