Gemma Mckinlay admits she didn’t attend school regularly as a child but her determination to carve out a bright future for herself and her family has seen her complete a BA in Humanities after studying part-time for six years through Adult Continuing Education at the School of Social Sciences.

After leaving state education without a single GCSE, Gemma, from Pembrokeshire, fell pregnant at 16 and went on to have four children of her own, including Ruby, 11, who was born with a heart condition and 15-year-old Joe who has autism.

In 2011, wanting to secure a better life, Gemma began to explore further learning opportunities but she had to overcome further setbacks along the way. Shortly after starting a two-year Foundation Certificate in Humanities, Gemma found out that her sister’s three children were about to be moved into care. She became the legal guardian to Leonie, Shaun and Jack, meaning she was responsible for seven children at the age of just 26.

"I wanted better for them and to make them proud of me."

“Life was quite bleak to be honest” said Gemma, who was the first in her family to engage in higher education. “At first, I worried about how I would cope being a student but I didn’t want the family to be split up. I wanted better for them and to make them proud of me. I didn’t want the children to be like me, growing up without an education or job. I was 26, with seven children to look after, and it was hard. I remember being asleep in the bathroom at 4am after trying to do an essay all night - I was worn out!”

Her nephew, nine-year-old Shaun, has Foetal Alcohol Syndrome which affects his behaviour, while Gemma herself was also diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia during her studies. It was during this period that her marriage broke down.

“All I ever wanted was to have mum and dad all sat down as a family with the children, like you see on television.” she said. “I know that isn’t reality sometimes but that’s what I wanted, so it was hard admitting that I’d end up being divorced like my parents. The children don’t have a male role model in their lives, but hopefully I can give them that and help them to have positive lives.”

“I wouldn’t change anything. Life is what you make of it! The best thing I ever did was have the children all with me under one roof. In fact, I actually cope better with seven than I did with four!”

Gemma in her cap and gown.

"My experience at Swansea University was incredibly positive! It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

With her graduation secured, Gemma has already set her sights on what she would like to achieve next. I plan to gain my Maths and English GCSE. Following this, I hope to become a primary school teacher by studying for the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)” said Gemma, who is also a parent governor at Ysgol Harri Tudur in Pembroke, a role which she thoroughly enjoys.

“You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it! My experience at Swansea University was incredibly positive! It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”