In a little over two years' time Sandra Murphy will be a degree-qualified social work professional equipped with the skills, expertise and determination to make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable and struggling members of the community.
It's quite a departure from her former life as a hairdresser and homemaker but Sandra couldn't be happier about her decision to study full time at CPIT (now Ara Institute of Canterbury). "I'm loving it," she says. "I left school at 16 and I've never had a CV. My children are very proud of me. They can see the relevance of study."
Sandra's journey towards a new career began when a flier promoting the Next Step Centre for Women at CPIT landed in her letterbox. The timing couldn't have been better: with her youngest child at high school, Sandra was thinking about what to do next. She decided to pay the centre a visit.
"The team at the Next Step Centre are really talented at discovering who you are and suggesting where to next," she says. "I've always loved working with people – talking and listening – and I'm involved with Women's Refuge and Odyssey House. Their suggestion for me was social work."
Sandra liked the idea but felt a degree course would be too big a jump at the time so instead she took a couple of Next Step courses in assertive communication and updating skills. "Those courses took me out of my comfort zone and revealed my strengths and weaknesses," she says. "I enjoyed it and decided to go a bit deeper with the Certificate in Human Services, to see if I was up to the level required."
Sandra certainly proved she was capable. "My first essay totally freaked me out but I got everything in on time, passed every assignment and did well practically."
Her success with the Certificate in Human Services gave Sandra the confidence to "step up" and enrol for the Bachelor of Social Work. She's about to complete the first year of the degree alongside male and female classmates of all ages and backgrounds.
"I'm learning about myself and about different cultures, ages and genders," Sandra says. "I'm particularly enjoying reflective learning. It challenges your thinking and broadens your outlook. It's taught me that I'm not always right."
Sandra says the course has also given her confidence, maturity "and it's helped me to be able to accept compliments and praise from my tutors".
Full time study takes dedication, hard work and often requires sacrifices, as Sandra has learned.
"Going from two incomes to one was tough and study is hard work but nothing worthwhile is easy. Initially I thought I had to be perfect – Superwoman – but I tried that and it doesn't work. Sometimes I feel guilty that I'm not there for my family as much as I'd like to be but they've been so supportive and they can see the benefits of me studying."
Sandra has also found plenty of support on campus. "CPIT does everything it can to support you. I couldn't be without Learning Services and the tutors are amazing – so encouraging and always there for you."
Once she graduates Sandra is looking forward to helping and empowering other people. Having previously worked in aged care environments, she's keen to advocate for the elderly but she also has "drive and passion" for families and is interested in addiction issues. She loves the idea that a career in social work offers so much scope.
Sandra is proud of how far she's come in a relatively short space of time and hopes her experience will encourage others to consider tertiary study, regardless of age. "When you're passionate about something you find a way to do it," she says. "You've just got to go for it."