I dropped out of college and now I’m Deputy CEO 

It’s never too late to go after your dreams and get a degree, says Arden University’s Victoria Stakelum

She dropped out of college and worked in a call centre before deciding she wanted to go to university. Her experience is now driving her to help others as Deputy CEO of Arden University

By Victoria Stakelum, Deputy CEO of Arden University

At school, I was a bit of a tearaway. I got my nose pierced at 15, but the school refused to let me attend unless I got rid of the nose stud. So, I just sort of stopped going. Growing up, our family had known poverty. I remember hearing stories about my parents selling their old music records to buy food for the week. 

Dad was a taxi driver and Mum had trained in computer programming. They were smart people, but neither had had the opportunity to go to university. As a family, we were careful with money and worried about getting into debt.

I moved out of home at 16 and left school, sitting my GCSEs as an external candidate. I did okay, and decided to go to college in Swindon – where I grew up – because I wanted to be treated like an adult.

However, I was unsure what I wanted to do for a career and I needed cash for rent, food and socialising. I soon dropped out of college and took work in a local call centre.  

When a friend enrolled on an evening course to take his English Literature A-Level, I was happy to join him. Studying together kept us more motivated and we had an excellent tutor. I scraped a C grade. 

I found call centre life unfulfilling and frustrating. I wanted more out of life. I returned to college full time in September 1996, three months before my 18th birthday.

After false starts with maths and psychology A-Levels, I eventually got 4 As – in philosophy, theatre studies, media studies and general studies. I then got offered a place at Oxford University, which was unusual since offers are rarely based on such non-academic subjects. I think my two years of working life and experience living away from home, alongside my A-Levels, must have set me apart. 

I was only the second person in my entire extended family to get a degree, a 2:1 in archaeology and anthropology at St Peter’s College, Oxford. My big sister was the first. 

My degree opened the door to a fulfilling and successful career, while my unusual route through education taught me resilience, communication skills and adaptability – and the need to do more to support disadvantaged students 

My degree opened the door to a fulfilling and successful career, while my unusual route through education taught me resilience, communication skills and adaptability – and the need to do more to support disadvantaged students. 

Families that have not had steady incomes or a history of higher education can be debt averse and cautious with finances. I was lucky to study my degree in the era of grants. In the same position today, I would simply not have gone away to university – the scale of debt would have been too daunting.

There are alternatives to ‘going away to university’ that enable people to work and earn alongside their studies and it’s vital that people are made aware of these. Otherwise the risk is that the value of degree-level study will become the preserve of the middle class and already wealthy – and the resourcefulness, experience and value of students coming through non-traditional routes will be lost.

Creating awareness of alternatives to the traditional three year residential degree and celebrating the value of ‘non-traditional’ students are driving passions of mine in my role as deputy CEO of Arden University.

Many 16 to 20-year-olds, and indeed older adults, won’t have any idea of the career they want to pursue. They may not realise the breadth of possibilities open to them if they are from families that haven’t been exposed to a wide range of career options. 

Allowing people to spend time in the workplace before taking their degree will provide valuable context and insight into their capability, potential and areas of interest. It can also generate far greater commitment and engagement when they decide to study. 

There is a determination and unconventional flair that comes with stepping off the treadmill from GCSEs to A-Levels to Uni. In my career, I have interviewed and worked with numerous adults who have taken a non-traditional path to higher education. Often, they’re amongst the most insightful and resilient of colleagues. They’ve challenged convention and taken ownership of their own path, rather than following the conventional route.

Traditional residential universities still have a place, absolutely. But it is high time that we gave equal value to the degrees achieved via part-time and online study by working adults and those with less than shining academic records from earlier adulthood. That’s why our work here at Arden University is so important.

We look holistically at a person’s motivation, capability and potential – not just their academic record. Judging a 30-year-old on their GCSE or A-level results is unlikely to do justice to their capability or potential.

Delivering flexible learning that can fit around working life, children or other commitments can also make the world of difference to people. You don’t have to attend a campus to get a degree, although we offer such courses for those who wish to study in this way. A focus on delivering skills for the workplace is also increasingly important in today’s job market. 

I’m passionate about helping people make the most of their potential, and that means delivering higher education that is more accessible, engaging and beneficial to people everywhere.


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