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She left school at 16 with one GCSE, now this Lisburn mum is a marine biologist studying for a PhD

Monica McCard tells Stephanie Bell how she returned to the classroom at 29 to fulfil her childhood ambition

Monica McCard from Lisburn went back to university to study for her dream career as a marine biologist
Monica McCard from Lisburn went back to university to study for her dream career as a marine biologist

It is never too late to pursue your dreams - that's the message from one Northern Ireland college, which is helping adults return to education and find new careers. Among its success stories is Monica McCard, who grew up in a working-class family of six children where it was expected that you left school at 16 and got a job.

Having dreamed as a child of becoming a marine biologist, Monica was a mum-of-three in her 30s when she finally got the opportunity to pursue her passion thanks to the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) Restart and Access courses.

Now Monica, who left school with one GCSE in science, has graduated with a degree in marine biology from Queen's University in Belfast, finished a teaching certificate and is now halfway through a PhD in invasion ecology.

More than that, she has devised a programme which launches this month enabling secondary school children to get valuable hands-on experience in marine biology.

Her enthusiasm for her work also includes co-authoring three academic studies as well as one of her own on invasive species.

Monica credits the SERC Access course with transforming her life: "My access course set everything in motion. If I hadn't done it I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now and I am doing what I love."

Ellie Bradley is deputy head of school for applied science sport and access to education at SERC, which has campuses Bangor, Downpatrick, Lisburn and Newtownards.

She explained just how big a step it is for people to come back to their education later in life: "When people come to us they are scared about maths and English; school really didn't work for them for one reason or another, perhaps they didn't see school as important, or had their family early. But we are not hung up on what happened in the past.

"Our focus is on this nice fresh start where everyone gets the opportunity to prove to themselves, their families and friends that they can succeed, whether that is getting qualifications to pursue a vocational course in further education or maybe starting a course a university. Everyone's journey and aspirations are different.

"The one thing that unifies the students coming to Restart or the Access programmes is that they are all scared. Some are scared even to cross the door, scared that they won't be able to do it or that maybe that maths teacher from the past was right.

Monica McCard from Lisburn went back to university to study for her dream career as a marine biologist
Monica McCard from Lisburn went back to university to study for her dream career as a marine biologist

"The first day will always be quiet but a month in it is like a different group of people. The excitement of 'getting it', especially maths, has taken over. They are looking forward to coming into class and eager to learn something they once thought they would never understand."

Monica (41) is just one of many inspirational people who have turned their lives around as a result of the course. Married to Colin (49), an airport customer services officer, she lives in Lisburn with their three boys Nathan (20), Callum (16) and Matthew (14). She grew up in a working-class family in Lisburn where college or careers were not something that were spoken about or encouraged.

"I left school with one GCSE to my name which was science," she recalls. "My dad was really hard-working and usually worked three jobs at the one time. It was just expected that we would leave school at 16 and get a job.

"My parents are great but they never knew how to help us with revision or encourage us in a career. They didn't go on to third level education and just came from that era when it wasn't something that working-class people expected. I left school and got a job as a hairdresser in my cousin's salon."

It wasn't until she married, started her own family and became a full-time mum that Monica realised she wanted more for herself and her children.

"When I had Nathan I started thinking about how when he was older, what skill would I have to get a job myself? That was a scary thought.

"I loved being a mum, but I always felt there was something missing. I'm not one for sitting at home all day, I don't enjoy that one bit. I need to keep busy and I didn't realise how much I needed my brain to be kept busy until I started the Access course."

Monica heard about Access through a cousin who was taking the course. Although nervous and unsure of herself, she was encouraged by her husband to give it a go. She was 29 and after two years at SERC completed five GCSEs and two A-levels with the aim of going on to university.

Marine biology was her dream but when it came to applying for university, her parents' influence again came to the fore and she actually started a nursing degree.

Monica with husband Colin and sons Nathan, Callum, Matthew and dog Buddy
Monica with husband Colin and sons Nathan, Callum, Matthew and dog Buddy

She explains: "I put so much into the Access course because I thought if I am leaving my boys at home to go and study then it has to be worthwhile.

"None of my family had gone to university and when I told my parents I wanted to do marine biology they wanted me to do something more practical and encouraged me to go for nursing thinking I would have a better chance of getting a job and providing for my family. I could see how pleased they were for me and I let them talk me into doing nursing.

"I actually applied to study both nursing and marine biology at Queen's, thinking I wouldn't get into nursing, but I was offered places on both courses. I wanted to please everybody and so I went for the nursing."

She very quickly discovered that nursing wasn't for her but it took another two years for her to pluck up the courage to walk away.

Again, with her husband firmly in her corner, she applied to do a degree in the subject she loved, marine biology, a subject she'd developed a fascination for as a young child after going on an annual trip to the seaside.

"We went to the beach just one day a year to avoid the parades on the Twelfth of July. Mum and dad would get us up at 5am and we usually headed off over the border.

Monica McCard, with her son Nathan who is studying Applied Science
Monica McCard, with her son Nathan who is studying Applied Science

"I grew up during the Troubles and that was the only day we went to the beach every year and it was like an escape and I looked forward to it all year.

"I actually didn't know we had so many beaches close by as we were never taken to any of them.

"I think because I was so excited to go there every year it left me wanting to learn more and that's how I developed an interest in marine biology.

"I just loved everything about ecology and marine biology and from the moment Queen's accepted me for the degree I have never looked back.

"During my degree I volunteered in the summer months for different projects to get hands-on experience. I went to Australia for a dolphin project and to Indonesia to study coral reefs and I loved every minute of it."

Her love for science has also led her to a career as a substitute teacher but what she most loves is spending time working in Queen's marine laboratory in Portaferry.

Monica McCard from Lisburn
Monica McCard from Lisburn

She has a particular interest in invasion ecology and has gained extensive knowledge in this area and on a range of topics including animal behaviour, marine and aquatic biology, animal husbandry and statistics.

Over the last few months, she has been setting up Northern Ireland's very first Marine Explorers Outreach Programme, aimed at 11 to 18-year-olds. Launching this month, it will run one Saturday a month for six months.

Such was the overwhelming demand for places that a second Sunday course has been launched and there is a waiting list for the next one beginning in September.

The course will enable high school students to become marine biologists for a day, with volunteers from science and marine biology degree courses taking part to enhance their skills as well as those of the children involved.

Indeed, Monica was inspired to set up the course by her son, Nathan. "He has spent a lot of time with me in the lab over the past year and a half and he hopes to study zoology at Queen's.

"It is a great chance for him to get hands-on experience which is so important for a young person's CV when applying for a degree course as the university will want to see that they have a passion for it. At the moment there isn't a chance for young people to get that hands-on experience and I wanted to change that.

"There were a lot of hurdles and legal stuff to organise and I got a lot of people saying 'no' along the way, but I am the kind of person that if someone says no, it just makes me more determined to prove that it can actually be done."

STEM Learning - the UK's largest provider of education and careers support in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - came on board to support Monica and their help was invaluable in getting the course up and running.

Lay volunteers, who will be largely made up of students, will help facilitate the 32 children who will be taking part in a number of marine projects on our shorelines.

Monica says: "The response was absolutely bonkers and within 24 hours all 32 places were filled and we had to set up another day which was filled and we have a waiting list for the next course in September.

"We even had parents from Donegal contact us and I asked them if they realised we were based in Portaferry and they said, yes, but they were prepared to drive their child here which is amazing.

"We've also had interest from a lot of Belfast schools and we want to reach out to kids who maybe don't get to the beach often."

Monica adds: "It is so exciting. There is a whole other world under the water that we don't get to see and we have so much life in our waters that is stunning and which people don't even realise.

"To be a woman of my age in this industry is not easy as there are so many young ones coming in with PhDs, but I hope that I can show my kids and other kids that there is nothing they can't do in their lives and that they shouldn't give up."

You can find out about Monica's outreach programme at mmccard01@qub.ac.uk. South Eastern Regional College is holding an open day for Access and Restart courses on Wednesday, March 6,from 2-8pm, in Bangor, Downpatrick, Lisburn and Newtownards. Restart is a level two course equivalent to GCSE level and is a part-time programme. Access is a Level 3 programme equivalent to A-level standard. It is usually a two-year full-time course but can be done in a year or part-time in the evenings

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