As a fresh year of Springboard+ courses prepare to open their doors to students around the country, a mother of two from the Boreenmanna road tells Gráinne McGuinness how a course in UCC helped turn her life around.
Maeve Ahern O'Neill was made redundant in 2008, let go from the marketing job she had held for more than a decade. Like so many, she struggled to find new employment.
“I am in my 40s with kids and a mortgage and was up against people straight out of college, looking for smaller money who probably had more digital skills than I had,” she said. “It was increasingly difficult to find work, very few jobs for a lot of people.”
Job seeking took its toll on her confidence and, despite support from her family, left her feeling she was not contributing to the family as she would want to.
“After a while I did some work under a Jobbridge scheme, which I loved, but unfortunately there was no work there for me at the end, so my confidence was hit quite a bit,” Maeve said. “I was trying so hard and after a bit, I was just like ‘ah forget it’.
“Things were hard, my husband was working hard to bring money into the family and I wanted to contribute, I wanted to bring in my own money. I was used to it and I’m a very independent person.”
Her tale will be a familiar one to jobseekers over 35, constantly hearing she was either overqualified for a junior role or under qualified in digital marketing.
“I was on social media myself personally but didn’t have that bit of paper and my marketing degree was from the 90s. A lot had changed and I wasn’t upskilled, didn’t have that paper to say ‘yes, she has digital skills’.
She was alerted to the possibility of doing a Springboard course and looked it up online.
“There were a couple of different courses I applied for, but UCC was always my first choice,” Maeve said. “I never attended UCC, I went to college in Dublin and it was on my bucket list to attend!
“So when I got accepted into the MA in Digital Arts & Humanities I was thrilled.” Despite initial nerves, she realised almost immediately that the decision was the right one, with attending UCC boosting her on both a professional and personal level.
“It was on campus one day a week so every Tuesday I was in UCC, the kids were taken care of and then the rest of it was online and I could cover it at home in my own time. It was absolutely perfect.
“Even those Tuesdays when i was on campus, you know it was nice to speak to people who were more than 11 years old! It was adult conversation and it was my day to get out of the house. And you need that kind of release, when you’re not working and you can’t get out of the house and just be yourself - for me to be Maeve instead of being Mom, it was a great relief.”
One module in the course involved on teaching and learning online and for that assignment Maeve had to develop a six or eight week online course and break it down, learning objectives, aims, etc. Despite coming from a teaching background herself she struggled to find a topic for her assignment, before deciding to use her own social media experience.
“I was thinking about it and as I was I scrolled up and down Twitter and all of a sudden I realised, ‘I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years, I’ve actually been sharing information about marketing and digital’. I realised I was developing my own personal brand.
"So I created a course ‘How to maximise your digital footprint as a personal brand’. I spoke about personal branding, why we should do it, how recruitment has changed, how our searching has changed. I developed a course about that and how we use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogging and presentation skills.
Her course was so well received by her lecturers that it became the basis of her thesis and from there, he own company.
“During my thesis research I said I’ll get some people into a workshop-style thing, do surveys and try and understand if people from Cork and Ireland generally would embrace social media to promote their own brand. I thought I might get 15 people, 20 if I was luck. UCC were great, they put a campus spread email out and within 10 minutes I got 30 people wanting to attend. I had to do another one a week later.” Maeve handed in her thesis in September 2015 and a month later set up her own business, thebrandingofme.ie, with the assistance of a back to work enterprise allowance, through social welfare.
“I’m two years into it, it's going really well,” Maeve said. “I’m lecturing up in UCC, I’ve been in NUIG in Galway. I’ve gone to VMware, gone to Hewlett Packard up in Leixlip, I hold workshops for their employees.
“The clients are generally my own age, we are ‘digital immigrants’ unlike the younger ‘digital natives’. I have clients who are job seekers, clients who are CEOs of multi-nationals. Everyone has their own goals.” Maeve can’t say enough in praise of the benefits the Springboard+ course has made to her life.
“It is wonderful to be back contributing to the household,” she said “I went back thinking I would be pounding the streets after looking for a job but little did I know think that I would have the opportunity to set up my own business and decide my own hours.
“Now it’s fiercely hard but I have a great group of support behind me between my family, friends and new men and women in business I have met.” With hundreds of courses currently accepting applications, what would Maeve’s advice be to anyone feeling stuck in a rut?
“There’s no point in sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself, which I did for way too long. when you could just go online and have a quick look. Something will jump out, apply for it and wait and see what happens.
“There is something for everybody in the audience, especially now with Springboard+ and how it has opened the doors to more people. It is good to get out there and learn something and keep the brain flowing. It will give you that boost, that confidence to get back out there again.
“I was very nervous the first day I went up, I thought I would be the oldest person there, it wasn’t the case. Put away the fears and just go for it.”
FOR Brian Keane from Ballinlough, Springboard+ helped him transition back to Irish life after more than a decade spent abroad.
“My case was unusual,” he said. “I was living in Asia for 12 years and then family circumstances changed and I had to come home.”
Despite a wealth of experience, he lacked the paperwork to prove his skills to Irish employers.
“I was living in China and running my own businesses and, as beneficial as that was to me, you need a piece of paper to legitimise it. Just when I came home I was wondering what was I going to do, because there weren’t many China-facing jobs in Cork, and I had to be in Cork.”
When he checked the list of courses it was as if one in particular, in UCC, had been created with him in mind.
“I had a look right then and there was East Asian Studies with Business and Mandarin. I already spoke Mandarin but didn’t have the bit of paper to prove it.
“I thought I was blessed. It was the right time, the right place. It gave me a lot of confidence in what I had been doing.”
After the course, the initial plan had been for Brian to be involved in moving Masters students from China to UCC but for a mixture of reasons, it fell through.
He had been working on a book about his time in China but had put it on the backburner.
“It felt like a tug of war, I really wanted to finish the book and get it out there but I wasn't able to write while I was building the company with UCC. I left it up to the universe.”
So when the plans with the university fell through Brian said: “That’s the sign, go and do the book. I finished it and am now in talks with publishers, hoping to get it out next year.”
Despite currently forging a path away from the subject of his course, Brian is a huge believer in Springboard+, as much for the ancillary benefits as the individual course contents.
“We can get stuck on such a narrow-minded view of who we are and what we can do but the other option may be just one degree outside our perception,” he said.
“Even the UCC Careers Office I found so helpful because they showed something to me and said ‘oh, you would be very good at that’ and it would never have crossed my mind to go into a field like it. And once it was said to me I thought ‘of course, they are right’ but in my head, I had a very narrow view of what I am capable of.
“Same as in our own lives, we’re always able to see other people's potential, less likely to see your own. I am constantly recommending people to do it, it is fantastic.
Transformative is how Dr Séamus Ó Tuama describes the effect of doing a Springboard+ course on the lives of participants.
As Director of Adult Continuing Education at UCC, he has seen lives changed dramatically for the better after a year-long course. The initiative, managed by The Higher Education Authority on behalf of The Department of Education and Skills, is currently accepting applications for the upcoming academic year and more people than ever are eligible to join.
In addition to the unemployed, courses are also open to homemakers and those formerly self-employed. Those in employment can also join certain courses, if upskilling or interested in retraining for the bio-pharma or medical devices technology sector. They may also join an ICT Conversion course.
Dr Ó Tuama said graduates benefit from the courses themselves but also the massive boost in faith in their own abilities.
“It is fantastic to watch people gain in confidence,” he said. "They are in a classroom of students and they think ‘I am as good as the person next to me’. You have homemakers back doing courses where they may have lacked confidence in the past. People in employment use it in certain cases to refocus or re-energise their career. It reaches out to different cohorts of people."
There are a whole range of additional supports put in place for participants, many of whom will be entering formal study for the first time in years. In UCC their student support scheme helps people with workload planning and study skills. Their Careers Service is also open to all Springboard+ attendees.
Dr Ó Tuama advice to people who are considering a course?
“When trying to choose the right course, it is more important to think about what you are interested in, what you will enjoy studying.
“Don’t have your head turned by a course that you think will sound impressive to have completed or choose a subject you have little interest in because you think you will get work in the field.” If possible students are struggling with course choice he encourages them to contact the college directly, as there are advocates available to talk through the options. They can also arrange for students to talk directly to the lecturers to get a better understanding of the course content. The closing date for applications is Friday August 11. You can find more information on eligibility and support and a full list of courses at www.springboardcourses.ie.