I returned to the UK after 12 years living in Nigeria with 4 dependent children and no money. None of my family was in a position to help but the UK government was wonderful. Housing benefit meant I could rent a house in North East London, and Income Support provided the necessities of life.
We had arrived at Heathrow dressed to go swimming in a tropical climate. Our plane had been delayed by snow in Paris.
What would our future be?
I took a piece of paper and wrote down my goal – to buy a house. More than anything else I wanted to provide security for my children. My father had died when I was 16 and the mortgage had been paid by insurance. I had to make sure my sons would not be destitute if anything happened to me.
How could I go from having nothing to buying a house? I wrote down “get a well- paid job”. To get this I needed to increase my qualifications to match my life experience; in Nigeria I had worked in senior management and been a headmistress even though I did not have qualifications in management or teaching, but a first degree in Theology. I wrote down each step I needed to take to reach the next step. Finally I thought “how long will it take to get from where I am now to buying a house?” I wrote down ’10 years’.
£15 a week, plus expenses
The school my sons were attending needed an RE teacher. They said they could take me on as a trainee so that I would teach at the same time as studying for a teaching qualification. The problem was that the money was too little to feed four growing boys. On Income Support I was permitted to earn £15 per week plus expenses without having to declare it. I went to a charity and they took me on two days a week for £15 plus a sandwich at lunchtime. The first thing they asked me do was on a computer. I knew nothing about computers, so I borrowed a book from the library and started to learn the basics.
A notice in the local paper caught my eye. The European Social Fund was funding a course ‘Information Technology for Women Into Management’ to start at the local University. Perfect – exactly the two things I needed: computing and management. Here was my first step. To be accepted on the course the student must be intending to return to work after not working in the UK for the past 2 years. No questions were asked as to where you had been living during those 2 years. The ESF not only paid all the fees, even books were provided. Lectures were on 2 days a week, which meant I could continue working at the charity. Every spare moment was spent in the University IT suite learning as much as I could. The other students frequently asked me for assistance and I gained a reputation for helping others.
My tutor asked what I intended to do after the course ended. I said I would like to study further, and she told me that the North London Training and Enterprise Council were funding an MSc in Business Information Technology, would I be interested? What was even more amazing was that the University offered to transfer me directly to the MSc. Had I applied myself I would have had to fill out a form which asked how long I had been living in the UK not as a student. I would then have been charged overseas student fees. As it was, the question was never asked and again, everything was paid for and I was still able to earn £15 a week at the charity.
Part of the course involved an industrial attachment. One of the other students, Natasha, who had also been on the IT for Women into Management Course, did hers with a company in South West London. This company trained network engineers in Novell software and needed more trainers. They were having difficulty because the type of people who are good at running computer networks are not generally good teachers. Natasha told them about me and I was called for interview. They offered to put me through the 7 courses and exams needed to become a qualified Novell Engineer and Instructor. In exchange I would do full time administrative work in the office. Again, the payment would be £15 per week plus expenses – this time a meal from their canteen at lunchtime and an all-zones underground pass to enable me to travel from home in North East London. There would be no obligation either way; at the end of my training I could decide whether or not I wanted to work for them, they might or might not offer me a job.
Over the following months I transferred to their Basingstoke office and became a Certified Novell Engineer/ Instructor. However I did not feel confident to train others as I had never actually run a network. Another training company in Basingstoke advertised for Lotus Notes Trainers. I applied saying “I know absolutely nothing about Lotus Notes but I learn fast”, and got the job. The salary was more than sufficient to allow me to come off Income Support, in fact it was enough to let me apply for a mortgage. I had estimated it would take me 10 years to buy a house. God did it in 5!