WORKING full-time in investment banking, starting a family, and studying for an Open University degree in languages at the same time, was tough, admits Martine Brockman.
The 29-year-old, currently on maternity leave with her son, Riley, who was born at the end of May, spread her BA (Hons) in Modern Languages over seven years, during which time she married, moved house twice and, for a while, commuted to Paris for work.
Martine, a former Chelmsford County High pupil, of Galleywood, is just one of 8,300 people in the county who are studying with the Open University, which she says allows people to realise their ambitions by studying in their own time, while juggling the strains and stresses of a full-time job or caring for a family.
"I found the first year was fine as I was able to use much of the knowledge I had gained at school, but the second year was much harder," she said
"I went to a residential school in Jena, Germany, where I met an inspirational lady, Fran, who was an invaluable mentor. Sadly she died a year later from cancer.
"The OU community is fantastic. At first, I had not realised there were all these people out there who I could link up with.
"I met so many interesting people from all over the world at the summer schools. Everyone goes there not knowing anyone but they quickly make friends, some of which they keep for life.
"I correspond by e-mail with several other students and I befriended a lady who lives in Southwold. She picked me up from my home and drove me to a summer school in Caen, as I had just had a knee operation and was on crutches. We became very close and now talk on the phone almost daily. Without people like this, I'm not sure I would have finished my degree."
Martine's studies have been invaluable for her job. She switched from majoring in Spanish to French when given a job at her company's Paris office.
She said: "I originally started the degree as a hobby, but that quickly changed as a result of work. I needed to very quickly up my schoolgirl French to that of Business level. Now I am a very confident French speaker and use it for meetings and conference calls all the time."
Martine's graduation at the Barbican was a joyous occasion, not only because she was just a few weeks away from giving birth to Riley, but she was joined by her 86-year-old grandma.
Martine said: "It was a wonderful day as I'm the first grandchild to graduate and, throughout my degree, my Gran had spoken about the day she could see me in cap and gown.
"When she was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, that seemed unlikely, but she made a fantastic recovery and was there at my graduation on what was actually her 86th birthday. We enjoyed a lunch beforehand and a celebratory dinner afterwards."