‘Like lots of my people my age, I didn’t grow up in a family with an expectation that I’d go to university. I had a disastrous time in primary school and was removed from mainstream classes. This was perhaps due to frequent spells in hospital. Teachers also mistook my shyness and lack of confidence for lack of interest or ability. I blossomed in secondary school and was really good at English and science. I was keen to work in a hospital and train as a physiotherapist but unfortunately I did not achieve the grades at GCSE to pursue this and money for university was not at my disposal.’
Andrea says her early life experiences in hospital, as she battled bone infections and other life-threatening illnesses, were key to shaping her career. With support from her family, Andrea pursued her ambition to work in a hospital. She studied full-time to achieve a diploma from the Association of Medical Secretaries, Practice Managers, Administrators and Receptionists, working as a receptionist throughout the two-year course.
Andrea secured her first job at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in London but left to pursue what was a successful modelling career. At 19 Andrea decided to return to her former career and focus on continuing her role as a medical secretary. As competition for these roles in London was fierce, Andrea successfully secured a position in Newcastle and took the brave step to move North.
Though she found it difficult to settle at first, Andrea soon realised she’d made the right choice. She loved her job so much that she spent eight and a half years working in this position before joining Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust in 2013 as a medical secretary in the learning disability child and adolescence mental health service. Andrea settled into the job quickly and was delighted when she secured a post three years later in the newly formed children’s crisis team, covering Tees Valley and North Yorkshire.
“I’d been thinking of getting back into studying for a while and moving to the new team was the catalyst I needed. I was heavily involved in the development of the team from the start, helping with things like designing new processes. This made me rethink my goals.”
“Within a few weeks of joining UNISON I received a welcoming e-mail from Janice, our UNISON Union Learning Rep. After that I received regular e-mails about the forthcoming Bridges to Learning workshops.”
A half-day workshop on counselling skills in 2015 was the first step in Andrea’s learning journey and she’s never stopped since. Following advice from Janice, Andrea enrolled onto a level 1 course in Wellbeing which she enjoyed so much that by 2016 she completed her Level 2 in Team Leadership, which she feels made her more confident and ambitious. Thereafter she completed the NCFE’s ‘Awareness of Mental Health Problems course, her second level 2 qualifications that year. As Janice recalls:
“It’s been inspirational to see the way Andrea has blossomed throughout her journey. She has got more and more determined to do well, so much so that the only problem is making sure she doesn’t take on too much at once; but that’s a great problem to have.”
The teamwork between these two is really impressive:
“It’s been like I’ve had my personal learning coach, as Janice has always kept an eye on me, sending an e-mail as soon as she’s spotted courses or workshops that she thinks I’d be interested in, and that’s helped spur me on to do the next thing. It’s all been distance learning, so I’ve had to do this on top of my job, which means I have had to be focused, so much so that there have been times when it’s only because my cat has learned to close my laptop, that I’ve realised it is time for bed!”
The more she pursued her studies, the more it became clear to Andrea that she not only enjoyed learning about mental health but that she has a natural gift for counselling. Since 2017, she has completed her level 3 in Counselling skills and will soon be recognised by the British Association for Counselling and Therapy when she completes her Level 5 Advanced Diploma in Integrative Counselling later in a few short months.
Given the challenges she faced in primary school, she is thrilled with the way that she has taken ‘like a duck to water’ to the academic study of psychology, so much so that she’s already thinking of studying for a Masters degree:
“My mum is very proud. She says ‘you’ve done it all by yourself’ and though it is out of character, she brags to her friends about me now – but it was her and my family who gave me my work ethic in the first place.”
Andrea has had great encouragement from her manager and colleagues in the crisis team too, as her knowledge and skills are making her a great resource for the team.