After eight years of working in the hospitality sector and travelling the world, Beth Penman found her life up-ended by the COVID-19 pandemic. She recognised this as her opportunity to make an impactful change in her own life, so she enrolled in the 2020 mid-semester intake for the University of Canberra’s Bachelor of Early Childhood and Primary Education.
“Working in the early childhood education sector has always been a passion, but I felt like I needed life experience first,” Beth says.
“When I finished school, I wanted to travel, and so I naturally fell into the hospitality industry. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I thought, well, it's the universe telling me: it’s now or never."
Like many UC early childhood education students, Beth is already working in the sector. Her current role is as a room leader at Coombs Early Learning Centre.
“We take 32 children a day – so that keeps me on my toes!” she says.
Beth also hit another major life milestone during her studies, when she became a mum for the first time.
It’s certainly no easy task to balance motherhood, with full-time work and full-time study, but with her work ethic, and the flexibility provided through the degree, Beth has been able to dedicate each domain of her life the time and effort that it deserves.
“I've never had any issue with scheduling classes. I’ve found that with the education degree, classes are timetabled so that you can start university in the morning, then work in the afternoon or vice versa,” Beth says.
“I mean, today I've been able to work a full shift at the preschool and come to class after – that flexibility for students is really great.”
She’s found a sweet equilibrium with her work life balance, with each element complementing one another, making the flow of her day feel almost seamless. In an industry where peer support and collaboration are crucial, having access to experts in their field is of major value beyond the classroom.
“Everything that I'm learning, every single day, can be applied to my preschool room,” Beth says.
“Through talking to the tutors, you can get great insight on things that are happening in your classroom. Every tutor I’ve had has been able to use our experiences as real-life examples in class, it really helps to workshop these situations in this industry.”
Returning to university as a mature age student is a much different experience than that of a school leaver, but Beth believes that the additional life experience she gained in preceding years built her confidence and skills.
“The support from the lecturers and conveners has been just amazing. At one stage, my tutor reached out to me and said, ‘You’re writing really well, but how about we catch up for a coffee and just talk about writing at a university level?’,” Beth says.
I know they’ve got 250 students in a cohort, but that teacher taking the time to notice me really made the biggest difference.
“It totally changed my whole perspective. I had been nervous to come back to university, having not written anything for eight years since graduating high school – now, give me an essay any day!”
Far from being the solo side quest she initially anticipated, Beth’s studies at UC have made a lasting impact on her life. She’s forged deep connections with both mentors and peers, some of whom she describes as friends for life.
“When I started, I thought ‘I'm not here to make friends, I’m here to study’, so I wasn't expecting to leave this degree with really great friendships and mentors.”
A study highlight this year has been the UC early childhood UK study tour, offered for the very first time this year, that saw students travel through Scotland and England to see how early childhood education and care is delivered around the world. It’s an experience that reinforced her passion.
“To travel to the other side of the world and sit in a room with 500 like-minded professionals and advocate for play in early childcare was a pretty moving experience,” Beth says.
“And seeing those parallels, how their practice mirrors ours. We all speak the same language of routine and nappy changes and pedagogy. Seeing how our skills are transferable right across the globe, and that our passions are shared with someone on the other side of the world – that was amazing.”
What underpins Beth’s experience with the early childhood industry, above all else, is a shared passion for providing all children with the very best start in life.
Whether it’s the classmates sitting beside her, or early childhood educators on the other side of the globe, the shared purpose of early childhood education and care unites the industry.
“We can't stop being teachers, we can't stop being early childcare educators. Everyone's passionate, everyone's working for the same end goal,” Beth says.
“There’s hospitality everywhere, there’s finance everywhere – but it all starts with early childhood and primary education.”
Story by Kelly White, photos by Tyler Cherry