Returning To Education
I always knew that I would eventually have to return to education; a master’s degree seems like a minimum these days. But I was enjoying life and didn’t want to return to the days of being a poor student again. In February 2015 I took a trip to Myanmar, which would motivate me to take the big leap.
We went to a village a few hours from Yangon by boat. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, we were having the craic on the boat, enjoying lunch and taking in all the sites that make Myanmar unique. This village was famous for producing pottery. When we arrived, we were taken to the factory by horse and cart. There was nothing too extraordinary about the village, just a few huts scattered along a track. The pottery ‘factory’ was a long tent type structure that was buried between some huts. As we walked in, ours eyes began adjusting to the dust filled air in the dark space. There was no electricity in the factory, and everything was made by hand. There must have been five or six people making pots. One of them- a man in his sixties- was sitting on the ground at a wheel making what looked to be flower pots.
Above him stood a girl of no more than 12 years of age. She was responsible for turning the wheel with her foot, day in day out, for twelve hours a day. I listened in fascination as the guide explained, that as the eldest, she would give up her education after primary school to take on that role, and earn money for the family. With her help, the potter would make about sixty pots a day, and when there was enough to fill the kiln, they were prepared for sale. The pottery then went by boat to Yangon where they were sold for just ten dollars. That ten dollars was then divided between the two of them, to keep their families supported. They refused to get in electricity because they feared the consequences of industrialisation.
We finished the trip to the village by visiting a shop where they sold their produce. I picked up some gifts and spent just 5 dollars, an amount of money I wouldn’t even miss from my wallet. Receiving it, it was clear what a huge contribution that was to them and what it subsequently meant for their families. Returning to Yangon I realised that the girl we met in the dark, dusty tent represented the paradox of my situation. She was from a country where she wasn’t going to be given the opportunity of secondary education, let alone attend a university. I was from a country where 3rd level education was free and the opportunity of a master’s degree awaited me. That just put everything in perspective for me. The only thing standing between me and further education, was me.
I returned to Korea, and immediately went online and applied for the course that I wanted. Honestly, I didn’t put that much thought in to it as I figured it would be a year or two before I was accepted. A few weeks later, I got word that I was to be part of the 2015/16 class. For a while, I was so busy packing up my life in Korea that I didn’t have time for the ‘what if’s’. But they creep in bit by bit. The ‘what if I’m a terrible student’, ‘what if I can’t adjust to college life again’, ‘what if it’s the wrong decision, and ‘what if I only realise it after it’s too late’. Thankfully, everyone around me only saw the positives of going back, and the encouragement was great, so I returned home in August and started in September.
The year was tough but you don’t sign up for a university program thinking it’s going to be easy. I kept one of the little pots I bought in Yangon as a reminder, and when I felt like throwing my laptop out the window, it gave me the motivation to stay going. I’m right in the middle of finals, and looking back I can’t believe what a positive learning experience this has been, not just academically but personally also. I study International Tourism and the class is predominantly made up of international students. There are just 8 full time Irish students in a class of 25.
This has meant that learning was as much about listening, and trial and error, as it was about reading. Group work was about being open to considering new ways of thinking and different perspectives. It was about discovering where strengths and weaknesses lay in the group and maximising the strengths of each individual. My experience of living abroad made it all a little easier for me as I had been exposed to a different culture of learning in Korea. All the traveling I did helped me when it came to applying what we learned in the classroom to real life. My experience of teaching helped me when it came to explaining things to my classmates. My role and experience in the Irish Association of Korea gave me great organisational skills that helped me create an organised, balanced student life.
All those fears I had before I came back were completely unfounded. One of the things I worried about was the age factor. I was only 28 but I thought it would be too old to go back and do another degree. However, every time I walk around campus I see students of all ages, young and old. People return to education at all times for so many different reasons, and sometimes life experience is a greater asset than academic experience.
Before I came home from Korea, a friend told me that Korea would always be there, and that I could always go back, but that I’d never progress if I didn’t make the first move. That has been the greatest advice. I have no regrets about returning to university and I’m excited to see where this qualification takes me.
I read a quote recently from one of the most recognizable human rights symbols of the twentieth century, which instantly reminded me of that little girl in Myanmar.
Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.
– Nelson Mandela
For anyone who is thinking about returning to education, at whatever level, my advice is to go for it. So many people don’t get the opportunity, so when the chance is there, just be brave enough to take it. None of us really know where this life will take us, but education and the act of exposing ourselves to new ways of thinking, is never going to be too much of a load to carry.
You can read more about Shauna’s travel experiences of Korea and beyond, on her blog What A Waygook.