'I can’t believe I’m getting a degree': Once homeless mum of four among An Cosán students

By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

A once-homeless mother of four is working toward an online learning degree to help turn her life around.

Róisín Kelly from Wexford is one of more than 1,000 students over the past four years of An Cosán Virtual Community College, whose flexible learning methods mean she can take most of her classes without even having to leave home.

Róisín Kelly is now on year two of her An Cosán VCC degree, despite leaving school at 15.

Her background mitigated against her going back to education, ever since leaving school at 15 without the Junior Certificate, and becoming pregnant at a young age.

Extreme poverty and homelessness followed a string of bad luck for Róisín and her children.

“I had to raise four kids alone, plus I had to work to put food on the table. But the only jobs I could get were casual jobs in bars,” she said.

All along, I knew I could do more than that, that I was smart. But without an education, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to get a better job. It felt like being trapped. It was so unfair.

But after completing a 10-week programme in 2016 that supports learners like herself to develop the skills and confidence for third-level study, Róisín is now in the second year of a three-year degree in leadership and community development.

Both courses are run by An Cosán Virtual Community College, an off-shoot of Dublin-based community education organisation An Cosán. Most of the programmes are delivered through online lectures and assignments, but face-to-face workshops are also provided in students’ local areas.

This model allows Róisín to take on studies she would not otherwise have been able to balance with family and other commitments.

“I have been able to schedule my learning around my kids and work. I do it online and at my own pace,” she said.

“It is really convenient and is accredited by Institute of Technology Carlow, so it is as good as going to a university in Dublin.”

As one of An Cosán VCC’s community partner hubs, Southend Family Resource Centre in Wexford hosts two face-to-face sessions for each of Róisín’s degree modules. Learners can then log in at home or from their local hub for eight weekly online sessions.

The charges for courses range from €300 for single module programmes, up to €2,200 a year for three-year degrees.

The online learning model has helped to attract more than 1,000 students to An Cosán VCC courses over the last four years, with a limited bursary fund open for applications. Students are also helped to access a range of Government supports.

Assistance with running costs have also been provided from local education and training boards (ETBs), community training centres, local development companies and Dublin City Council.

However, with State funding limited to €57,000 a year, An Cosán VCC is calling on the Government to increase its funding by €350,000 so they can continue delivering more success stories like Róisín’s.

An Cosán chief executive Liz Waters, said women have been excluded from reaching their potential for too long because they choose to become mothers.

“We believe that being a mother should never be a barrier to achieving an education. That’s why we provide an accessible way for learners to get the education they need and to be the best they can be,” she said.

The idea is to educate women to degree level and enable them and their families exit poverty.

From abject poverty and the toll it took on her self-esteem and mental health, Róisín has been able through her continuing education to move confidently in just that direction.

“I can’t believe I’m getting a degree. I never thought that would be possible,” she said.

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