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Sisters who did it for themselves: Meet Northern Ireland mums who went back to school

Three Lisburn women, who have 11 children between them, tell Stephanie Bell how they left school in their teens but went back to the classroom in their 30s to gain places at university and qualifications in caring

On track: Sara Mehaffy, Kim Murdock and Kellie
On track: Sara Mehaffy, Kim Murdock and Kellie Mehaffy
Sara Mehaffy, Kim Murdock and Kellie Mehaffy and their mum Debbie (left) holding Jude (21 months), Kim, Kellie and Sara with Harlow (7), Kaleb (10) and Willow (6)
Sara Mehaffy
Kellie Mehaffy
Kim Murdock
Sister act: Kellie, Sara, mum Debbie and Kim

By Stephanie Bell

Three inspirational Co Antrim sisters have proved it is never too late to follow your dream by going back to school in their 30s. The siblings - sisters Sara and Kellie Mehaffy and Kim Murdock, from Lisburn - who have 11 children between them - had to first get qualifications to secure a university place to study for the career they missed out on in their youth.

All three, who left school in their teens, have chosen a caring profession.

Kim (43) has just started work in her dream job as a midwife at the Royal Jubilee Maternity unit, while Sara (35) and Kellie (40) are both studying for a nursing degree at Queen's University Belfast.

The girls, who also have a younger sister Gemma (32) and brother William (29), have been inspired by their wonderful mum Deborah Mehaffy (62), who also went back to study in her 30s while looking after five children. Deborah studied counselling and is a qualified life coach and celebrant.

They all give credit to the adult Access course in South Eastern Regional College (SERC) for giving them the qualifications and motivation to go on to university.

‘After seeing the nurse helping dad, it was what I wanted to do’

Sara Mehaffy

Sara (35), a mother-of-three, is the middle child of the Mehaffy clan from Lisburn.

It was the tragic death of her father William (61), a delivery driver, from cancer in 2015 which inspired Sara to follow a career in nursing.

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The second of the three sisters to return to education as an adult learner, Sara is just about to finish the first year of a nursing degree at Queen's University.

She left school after A-levels, unsure of what she wanted to do as a career. She got a job with Tesco and then focused on raising her children Kaleb (10), Willow (6) and one-year-old Jude.

She explains that the care given to her father and family in his final hours by a district nurse helped make up her mind that she would return to study two years ago.

She says: "I always wanted to do something in a caring role, but I think life got in the way and then the kids came along. Kim had set the bar when she went back to study at 32.

"Before I even enrolled on the fast track access course at SERC I decided that nursing was the plan for me and part of that was seeing how the local district nurse helped my family when we lost our daddy, William, to cancer in 2015, just a week before Kim was to start nursing at Queen's.

"It was the most awful time, but we were able to take comfort from the nurse who came out to the house when dad was very close to end of life.

"Dad was diagnosed with secondary brain cancer and they never did find out where the primary cancer was.

"That nurse made our daddy comfortable and told us when it was close to his time. Most of the family were there and it was comforting with the nurse there, guiding us, as we all held hands.

"The moment has never left me, or how the nurse helped us. I knew this was what I wanted to do."

Sara's journey began with a one-year fast track access course at SERC in 2016-17, which she found hard going.

She felt like giving up many times but, inspired by her sister Kim, she was determined to stay the course.

She says: "Before I started, I was at home with my children, so life was very busy. You don't think you can fit any more into the day and then you take on a course and find that yes, you can do more.

"I had thought about giving up, but Kim inspired me to keep going. She brought out the competitiveness in me, I could see how her life had changed and she had done so well and then we had Kellie coming behind us doing it and I knew I couldn't be the one to give up.

"I loved the challenge of the course and all the new things I was learning and the opportunities that were open to me following the course.

"I cannot believe I have almost completed my first year at Queen's.

"I did lack confidence and at times thought that I would never finish the course, but I got through by aiming just to finish each term."

Sara says she managed with the support of family for childminding duties, which helped her to juggle her studies with her busy home life.

Her mum has also been a shining example to all her girls.

Sara says: "There is a bit of history in our family of people going back to school. I suppose our mother Deborah started the ball rolling when she went back to study counselling in her 30s and what she has achieved is amazing.

"It has been a massive change for me, but I feel like I'm 18 again. I probably always knew I was capable of more as I did have a brain in school and now my goal is to be a hospice nurse."

‘I gave birth on Monday and sat an exam on Thursday’

Kim Murdock

Mum-of-four Kim is the eldest of the three girls and was the first to take the plunge and decide to return to education at the age of 36.

Kim is married to Ian Murdock (57), a driving instructor, and they have four boys: Ben (24), Jack (19), Archie (nine) and Eli (six).

She left school at 16 and started her family at 19. Her dream career even then was midwifery, but she put it on the back burner while focusing on her family.

Today, her job as a midwife at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital is everything she had hoped for.

Kim says: "I got pregnant at 18 and started my family and I needed to work, so I got a job part-time in an opticians, which I did for 21 years.

"It just got to the point when I felt I needed to do something for me and I always wanted to be a midwife and realised at 36 if I didn't do it now, I never would. I started to research how to become a midwife and discovered SERC's access course to university would be the ideal starting point.

"I think my family were a bit surprised, there I was all settled with family and a job and I was going down this road that no one knew was my dream. The access course was such a welcoming and friendly environment and there was such an age range within the class that I quickly adapted and fell back into the routine of education.

"I made new friends on the course and our shared experiences helped us through the challenges we faced during assignments and exams. The lecturers were also part of a great support system, always making themselves accessible if anyone needed help or advice."

After completing the two-year access course, she applied for three years in a row before finally being accepted to study for a degree in midwifery at Queen's University, where she graduated last year.

Her dedication to achieving her goal was obvious when she insisted on sitting an exam just three days after giving birth to her youngest son.

"It was difficult juggling everything - I do remember giving birth on a Monday and sitting a practical exam on a Thursday. I had the support of my family to help me with the everyday practical things like picking up and dropping off my children. Everyone wants you to win when you are putting in the time, effort and determination to succeed.

"If you want something enough, you have to keep going. It was great that there were other people my age on the course too and it shows that it is never too late to learn something new. At the age of 43, I have graduated from Queen's University with a First Class Honours Degree.

"It's brilliant that my sisters Sara and Kellie have followed in my footsteps. I like to think that they've been inspired a little by me, among other things. I know them and what they are capable of, so I've encouraged them every step of the way to pursue their own dreams and ambitions."

'Returning to study has been the fastest two years of my life... but I've loved it'

Kellie Mehaffy

Kellie has just completed the second year of the access course at SERC and has an offer from Queen's University to study nursing this September.

Kellie lives in Lisburn with her partner Alan Cahoon (43), a businessman, and has four girls: Jordan (19), Brooke (16), Kaycie (14) and Harlow (7).

She says: "It was a real surprise when Kim announced she was going back to school.

"We were all rearing our families and busy with family life.

"It was certainly the furthest thing from my mind, but here I am, 40-years-old and ready to start a nursing degree. I suppose both Kim and Sara gave me the push I needed, for which I am thankful. It has changed my life."

Kellie left school at 16 with three GCSEs and worked for some time in a pharmacy before becoming a full-time mum.

She says she struggled to help her children with their primary school homework but as a mature student was delighted to be able to work alongside her daughter Brooke and help her with her GCSEs.

"Last year Brooke and I studied together when she was doing the first year of her GCSEs.

"She even mentioned studying nursing too. The best part though is that I was able to answer her questions and it helped us both to be studying together.

"All of my daughters are very supportive of my return to study."

While it was tough returning to study after so many years and juggling home life with her school work, Kellie says the access course proved invaluable in helping her to manage her new way of life.

She adds: "One of the most important parts of the access course was the time management unit. If you have a family, it's all about juggling and prioritising. You come to realise what is important and what can wait.

"Coming back to study was a real shock to me. It has been the fastest two years of my life, but I have loved it, particularly the choices within the course. You can follow many different routes to different degrees. It opens a lot of doors.

"One of the best things about going back to school is that your conversations change. When Kim, Sara, and I got together it was always hard to get a word in edgeways, but now we are talking about new things we never dreamed we would talk about - it's a whole new level of conversation and knowledge that is blossoming out from us. We just needed to nurture it."

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