Student series with Denise Arkley: Hair salons, computing and Open University

Continuing our student and graduate series: this week we talk with Denise Arkley of Hatstand Nelly. Denise undertook an Access course last year and is now studying a diploma in computing via Open University. She is incredibly modest about the role she has played in the salon sorting out IT and security issues!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a 47-year-old woman who manages a hair salon in Aberdeen. I’ve been there since 2004 when the salon first opened. My position has evolved over the years, from being the salon’s receptionist to my current role which involves training; including being one of the SQA Assessors for our apprentices, running our social media, liaising and negotiating with outside agencies, assisting the salon owner with forward planning, staff performance, budgeting etc – along with the day to day running of the salon.  

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The most important part of my job is dealing with clients.  Although I don’t ‘do’ the hair, I do enjoy being a positive part of what makes a client’s visit to the salon, and have got to know many over the years. One hears both the good and bad things going on in peoples’ lives working in a salon. We can help just by listening, I’ve found.

Outside work, I collect records, watch a lot of gigs and hang out with my partner, our friends and the cat.  I am also currently studying with the Open University.

Which course is it you’re doing at Open University?

I’m just starting a Diploma in Computing and IT (with the aim of topping up to a degree). The course is broken up into modules, this year I’m running a basic maths one which will run alongside the first and part of the second computing module.

After completing my Level 1 modules, I should hopefully have a clearer idea of what direction I wish to go down in the future, and can plan my studies accordingly as the OU makes it easy to follow a particular path – or indeed change along the way if you feel you’ve taken a wrong turn.

What did you have to do to get accepted onto the OU course?

Just apply! I chose this course after completing an Access SMT course which ran from October 2016 to May 2017. I started this purely to see if my brain was still capable of learning new things – and to step out of my comfort zone a bit - luckily it did!

I never studied maths beyond standard grade and IT wasn’t really a thing in my school in the mid-eighties. I was genuinely surprised to find I really enjoyed the maths – it was hard work, but the Eureka moments made it worthwhile. I wanted to learn more about IT as I’d pottered about with HTML a bit at work with our old WordPress website, but very much along the lines of ‘if that does that here, and I copy that bit of code, it should also do that there’.

The Access course made me decide to take things further and gave me some reassurance as well as the confidence to go for it – even at my age and level of experience.

If resident in Scotland, Access to OU courses can also be made easier due to free tuition if earning under a certain amount.

How do you find ‘remote’ learning? Is there a community? Can you work with others?

I’ve found ‘remote’ learning easy to get into. I’m happy and motivated to study by myself – in a weird way I find the process relaxing, even if the work can be hard. The module websites give lots of guidance and are generally easy to navigate. There always seems to be a reflection aspect to each unit which can help you pause and just remind you why you are doing what you are doing.

There’s plenty of communication both with tutorials and fellow students – there are module forums and tutor groups on the OU site as well as Facebook and WhatsApp groups for each module – run by students themselves, just following the OU guidelines of what is appropriate to discuss. In the one I’ve just joined, there’s lots of swapping pictures of pets among the general chit chat of ‘I got my books’ and ‘where are my books?’

I found the forum for my Access course became a very supportive network for those who used it.

From the introductory forums for my two new modules, it’s interesting to see the varied level of experience different students have; many are already very IT literate and have a career in the industry, some are looking to make a change and others like me, are seeing where it takes them and are open to possibilities and opportunities.

There also seems to be a good mix of women and men taking part – though as not everyone uses the forums, it’s difficult to judge the percentage of women to men on each module – but it’s encouraging.

I’ve also been directed to a Facebook page specifically for women studying STEM subjects with the OU which seems a good network to start out in.

What attracted you towards technology?

Tech is so ubiquitous nowadays but people my age learned more about it as adults rather than children; everything I’ve learned about IT, I’ve taught myself. I enjoy problem solving. Our website at work was hacked a couple of years ago and we struggled to get the help we needed to fix it – so I just searched and checked sources and searched and double checked until I found how to fix it myself.  (We updated to a more secure website very shortly after!). I am hoping I can apply some of the skills I learn to my current job while studying.

It is such a huge subject. Are there any areas you are particularly interested in?

I’m still open to seeing what I enjoy doing, I have a vague idea of following a software development route -  I don’t really see myself as a creator but like the idea of optimising ideas.  I’ve been working through an online coding academy, freeCodeCamp, over the summer which has helped me understand the basics of SQL, CSS and Javascript which has been enjoyable – puzzles and problem solving.

Why did you choose Open University rather than college or evening classes?

I work full time, and my finishing hours can be a little irregular, the Open University / distance learning seemed an obvious choice. I think I would find it stressful having to get somewhere at a particular time after working all day.  With OU, I can study when or where I want to - as an OU student, I was also able to gain access to the libraries of local brick universities which is great. I plan on using this for study space as well as access to the library itself.

I think this flexibility makes OU study much more open than regular study for people who have other commitments – irregular hours, jobs, kids, family.

What did you want to be when you grow up???

I’ve still never known what I wanted to be when I grow up!! I dropped out of college and university in my youth – wasted opportunities. I was very much into social sciences – history and psychology when I was younger but never really had any goal, so study fell by the wayside.

Before my current position, among other things, I dropped out, played in bands, worked in a record shop, in social care, car rental, trained in Swedish Massage – I always fell into the jobs I rather than actively pursue anything.

It’s quite interesting to have goals now, I really enjoying the process of studying, and am looking forward to seeing what opportunities come from a new-found love of maths and IT – the 47-year-old me is much more patient and logical than the 18-year-old me!

It's clear that Denise is relishing her life and studies. We plan to keep track of Denise as she progresses with her course.

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First published on Company Connecting September 2017

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