Single mum Gemma Turnbull, aged 34, admits she didn’t attend school regularly as a child. However, her determination to carve out a bright future for her and her seven children saw her graduate with a BA in Humanities in 2019 after studying part-time for six years through Swansea University’s Department of Adult Continuing Education (DACE).
After leaving state education without a single GCSE, Gemma, who is from Pembrokeshire, went on to have four children, including Ruby, 11, who was born with a heart condition and 15-year-old Joe who has autism.
In 2011, wanting to secure a better life, Gemma began to explore further learning opportunities, but she had to overcome further setbacks along the way.
Shortly after starting a two-year Foundation Certificate, Gemma found out that her sister’s three children were about to be moved into care.
She became the legal guardian to Leonie, Shaun and Jack, meaning she was responsible for seven children at the age of just 26.
“Life was quite bleak to be honest,” said Gemma, who is the first in her family to engage in higher education.
“At first, I worried about how I would cope being a student, but I didn’t want the family to be split up. I wanted better for them and for them to be proud of me. I didn’t want the children to be like me, growing up with no education or no job.
I was 26, with seven children to look after, and it was hard. I remember being asleep in the bathroom at one point at 4am after trying to do an essay all night – but now I’ve done it.”
Her nephew, nine-year-old Shaun, has Foetal Alcohol Syndrome which affects his behaviour, while Gemma herself was also diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia during her studies. It was during this period that her marriage broke down.
“It was hard admitting that I’d ended up divorced like my parents. Nobody wants that.” said Gemma. “The children haven’t got a male role model, but hopefully I can help them to have positive lives and I wouldn’t change anything. Life is what you make it – you can either sink or swim. The best thing I ever did was have the children all with me under one roof. In fact, I actually cope better with seven than I did with four!”
With her graduation secured, Gemma has already set her sights on what she wants to achieve next.
“I plan to gain my Maths and English GCSE, but I’m going to get a private tutor for those. Then I hope to go on and do a PGCE before hopefully becoming a primary school teacher,” said Gemma, who is also a parent governor at Ysgol Harri Tudur in Pembroke.
“You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. The whole experience has been positive, especially the staff at Swansea University and their attitude towards helping me. If I had had teachers like that when I was at school, I know I would have done a lot better - they have been amazing.
Everything I do is for the children and the whole journey has made me a better mum.”