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Studying at university as a single mother

26th September 2014

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In 2005 I found myself starting a new life as a single mother at 25 years old. I didn’t know how I was going to give my daughter the life I wanted her to have, and moreover be the role model I wanted her to look up to as a mother.

However, with the birth of my daughter came the opening of a new chapter. I looked into going to university – I had always wanted to go but had focused on succeeding in sport. When I was at school I loved Art and Drama, and wanted to work for an animation company. But the last decade had been all about sport, fitness and personal training. So I thought I’d draw on my strengths and look to become a PE teacher. If that is what I wanted to do I knew that I had to go to university. So I investigated.

Initially it was quite hard to find out what support was available and whether or not I would be able to afford it. But the more searching on the internet I did and the more people I called, the more questions I asked, the more I found out. And I found out that with a tight budget, resourcefulness, and the aim to study extremely hard, I’d be able to do it. Knowing that I’d be ‘achieving against adversity’ and that my daughter would be proud of her mother motivated me.

I stayed nearby to my family for support, which limited my university options. My decision was finally made because of the support one university offered for childcare. The university worked in partnership with a nursery that was on site (although open to the public) and they were very used to students bringing their children along. Being able to have my daughter, Ellie, close by and in one place was very reassuring and also easier financially (when completing childcare funding applications).

When I started the course I was a single mother with a nine-month-old baby girl, renting a flat an hour away, which was all incredibly tough. Fortunately my sister lived close to the university and she helped me out a lot and let me stay during the week so I didn’t have to travel so much. However, in October, I was able to move to a place much closer to the university. Moving was ‘a mission’ because all the benefits have to be transferred and re-applied for (e.g. housing benefit), so supplying all the paperwork again, trying to study, and trying to be a good mother was incredibly tough. At times I felt like I was at my wit’s end.

Once I had moved and settled in for the duration, I found it hard to adjust to being a student, being a mother, being a sportsperson, and combining all of these roles. I kept quiet about being a mother because I looked young and I felt that people would judge me if I told them I was a single mother. I felt like giving up on many occasions, especially in my first year. But then I joined a sports team and they were so supportive and became like a family to me. I didn’t give up and I started getting better at reading and writing, and was able to combine student-parent life much better than in my first year, with the support of my friends that circled round my daughter and me.

These experiences have not been easy - quite the contrary - but when graduation day came I felt so proud of what I had achieved. I looked down at my daughter who was three years old, she held her arms out to meand I bent down to pick her up; I held her tight knowing how much she had inspired me.

Whilst I had achieved something significant for our future, being at university felt like it changed the shape of my heart. I didn’t want to be a PE teacher anymore, I wanted to carry on studying; it felt like this experience had only just started to unravel my potential…

For helpful websites please visit the following:

Student-parent website:

NUS student parents:


Also, I am developing a website:

Helen Owton is currently a Lecturer at De Montfort University and Associate Lecturer at the Open University. She completed her undergraduate degree (first class) at the University of Winchester, an MSc (merit) at the University of Chichester, and a PhD at the University of Exeter. Her role as a lecturer involves her taking seminars and lectures, marking assessments, conducting research and supervising dissertations. This requires, amongst other things, good interpersonal skills, patience, flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, self-awareness, a sense of humour and self-reflection, which she believes she developed whilst she was a ‘student parent.’

Helen is also the author of Studying as a Parent: A Handbook for Success.Find out more and download a sample chapter here.

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