When she was growing up in her native South Africa, Mel Heitkamp wanted to train as a nurse, but her diminutive stature ruled her out from progressing further at the time.
“I volunteered at the local hospital when I was in high school back in South Africa, but I was rejected from further training because they thought I was too small to physically turn a patient on my own,” she recalls.
Now, several jobs later, living in South Wales with four children, she is all set to enrol on a Bachelor of Nursing (BN) undergraduate degree course – in no small part thanks to the learning support she has had from UNISON.
“I feel like I am coming full circle: I want to study a BN, and nowadays being tiny won’t be a problem!” she says.
Mel began studying with The Open University (OU) in 2009 by taking two courses in what was then called the Openings programme (they are now called Access modules).
She then enrolled on the distance learning short course Science: Human Genetics and Health Issues, which helped her decide that she wanted to train to become a midwife.
“I attended an open day at the University of South Wales on the campus at Glyntaff, where the nursing courses are based, and I found out that one of the routes available was to do the K101 Introduction to Health and Social Care course through the OU,” she says.
It was while she was working her way through that OU course in 2014 that a friend suggested she join a Return to Learn course that UNISON was about to start in Newport.
“When I first joined, I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to give me anything because I was already studying,” she admits. “But it was such a fantastic group, with such a fantastic tutor, I found my interest was piqued after two or three weeks.”
There was just one problem: Mel was not a member of UNISON at the time. “Although I have always been a union protagonist through the years and had the greatest respect for UNISON, I didn’t think I could become a member until I was actually working somewhere,” she explains.
“But I really wanted to complete Return to Learn, so I contacted Area Organiser Jenny Griffin to ask about my options and when she told me I could join as a student, I joined immediately.”
Mel enjoyed studying as part of a group. “We all brought different skills to the group so we were able to help each other: there were some people who had never touched a computer before, so those of us who had helped those who hadn’t,” she says.
“When you go to a course like that and you have fantastic people who have an affinity with each other, you almost become like a second family: UNISON is like that family structure behind you that is supporting you, encouraging you, and I would not have known about that without the Return to Learn course.”
Although the course is finished, Mel’s Return to Learn group created and cemented such solid friendships that the participants continue to keep in touch, Mel reveals. “We are currently meeting once a month for a ‘ladies catch-up’, and at least one other member has decided to continue her studies further as a direct result of the Return to Learn course,” she says.
One particular part of the course has been enormously helpful, as it has helped Mel adjust the route map of her learning journey.
“Marilyn Thomas, who was a fantastic tutor and acted as captain of the ship, put me in touch with one of the first direct entry midwifery students on the course I wanted to do,” Mel recalls.
“Her advice was not to go through the direct entry route but rather to do the BN and then specialise in midwifery – and thanks to that, I have slightly changed my development plan.”
Return to Learn has also alerted Mel not only to the wide range of learning possibilities available through UNISON but also to big picture issues that the union is campaigning on.
“It has opened my eyes to all the extra courses that are there if you want them through UNISON and it has also opened my eyes about the issues that we need to champion out there,” she says.
“If I hadn’t gone on the Return to Learn course, I would have been following my own academic plan and getting my head down and getting on with it, but I would have been a lot more blinkered.”
As she had missed the admission dates for 2015, Mel decided to apply for entry in September 2016 – and when she decided to start another OU course in the meantime, she discovered another way in which Return to Learn had paid off for her.
“Before we started, students were advised to complete an online test to ascertain whether we had the required mathematical skills to complete the course,” Mel explains.
“Thanks to the numbers and percentages work we did within our Return to Learn course, I received 100 per cent in the mathematical component of the test, which I was surprised and delighted about.”
Now that she has started the module, she is finding the maths much easier than she would have without the help of the course, she says.
Mel has also benefited from the support of the Family Skills Network team, part of a group of charities, associations and organisations that work together to support parents in Newport, who have helped find a volunteering placement for Mel at the Royal Gwent Hospital, organised her Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check and provided other courses including health and safety; adult and paediatric first aids; food safety; safeguarding and mindfulness.
“The team have been absolutely brilliant: there is training out there, but you have to be determined and you have to know where you want to go,” she says.
To avoid the distractions from studying presented by everything from the phone ringing to the cat playing with her pen, Mel regularly studies on the Caerleon campus, and whenever she gets chatting to other students about problems they might be having, she always recommends the UNISON union route.
“When I have spoken to people and they have been down about something I ask if they have spoken to UNISON or if they are a member of UNISON, so I have been doing quite a lot of advocacy on campus!” she says.