Mum-of-two Maria Freeman’s life-changing decision to change her career path after being made redundant from her job as a chef in a call-centre has now landed her a teaching role in a North East women’s prison.

Despite not having been in education since leaving catering college as a teenager, Maria, 41, was undeterred and five years ago signed up to an Access to Higher Education Course at Sunderland College, followed by a Public Health degree at the University of Sunderland.

Her hard work paid off and she graduated last year with First Class Honours. This year she’s excelled herself once again and graduates today at the Stadium of Light with a Post Compulsory Education and Training (PCET) course at the University, which allows her to teach and train others in the subjects of her choice.

She’s now about to begin a new career teaching English and Public Health to inmates at Low Newton Women’s Prison in Country Durham.

“I can’t wait to get started, it’s an exciting new chapter in my life,” says Maria. “I would like to think I can make a difference to these women’s lives in some way through the fantastic teaching and training I’ve been given at Sunderland.”

She describes her university experience as “life-changing”. At the annual award ceremonies this week (July) at the Stadium of Light, she received her award from Chancellor Steve Cram.

Maria said: “It’s an incredibly proud day for me: achieving a First Class degree last year was an amazing feeling and worth all the hard work, and to walk on that stage again to collect my PCET just shows how much I’ve developed as a person and the incredible journey I’ve been on.

“Coming to University was the best decision I ever made,” explained Maria, from Sunderland. “Redundancy came as a blow, but also gave me the opportunity I needed to change my career and get into Higher Education.

“Of course, I was nervous at first and wasn’t sure I’d get through the course, but it’s about putting the work in and I found myself getting really good grades, which motivated me even more.”

Single mum Maria also says her children, aged 13 and 16, were at the heart of her decision to make a better life for them and also encourage them to go to University.

“I wanted to be a role model for them and they are really proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve managed to juggle my studies while they’re at school and it’s worked out really well.

“When I was young, university wasn’t even a consideration, but I really want both my children to go. I came from what you would consider a deprived area, but always wanted to work hard at whatever I was doing.”

In addition to the skill’s she’s developed in the classroom, from critical thinking to research, Maria also says she’s made life-long friends on her course.

She added: “I would encourage anyone to step out of your comfort zone and just go for it. University will develop your confidence and anyone is capable, regardless of age.”

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