Stylist’s Joanna McGarry reveals how it feels to become a student again after 10 years in beauty journalism
Photography: Gemma Day
Go to the chest of drawers in the living room. To the left of the middle drawer. In a brown envelope marked MISC. CERTIFICATES. Under the bank statements.” I’m on the phone to Isaac. He’s the builder renovating the bathroom in our flat in London and I’m pacing around the pool of our Airbnb rental in Portugal. I’ve persuaded him to rifle through a life’s worth of admin to find my 17-year-old GCSE certificates, which – although dog-eared and yellowing – have somehow remained intact after all these years.
I didn’t expect to be doing this. I should be on the beach drinking caipirinhas. But here I am, filling out an online UCAS form from my sun lounger.
Technically, this is the first time I’ve done it – a kind teacher filled out my first UCAS application to study English 15 years ago. So this is new. Bingo! Isaac hits the jackpot. I then bash out a personal statement, qualifying – in 4,000 characters – my enduring fascination with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture. My husband proofreads it and emerged glassy-eyed as he steps away from the laptop.
He – along with a few very close friends – is acutely aware that I’ve been daydreaming about doing this for years.
Eight years, in fact. It began when I was sent to review a big, flashy spa off the coast of China. There, I met a renowned TCM doctor who took my pulse and proceeded to recount – through a translator – every single thing that had ever happened to my body. From the operation I’d had three years prior, to the incessant headaches on the left side of my head. He talked about my liver and how it governed my body (TCM dictates that one organ is always more influential to our energy flow than the rest). It blew my mind. From that moment, acupuncture became a speck in my peripheral vision; growing until it loomed so large, I could no longer look past it.
In the years that followed, I read books, met various acupuncturists – with some astonishing and also not-so-great results – and thought, ‘Maybe in 10 or 20 years, I could do something like this, too.’ But it’s only now – prompted by a nagging feeling of unease that had been my constant shadow for months, as well as my 33rd birthday on the horizon – that I’m biting the bullet. Or rather, swallowing it whole.
Taking the leap
I call Stylist’s editor from Portugal to resign. She’d had no idea, of course. I kept this dream locked away, convinced it was just a bit of self-indulgent navel gazing. It’d be easier if I hated my job. But I don’t.
Over the past decade, I’ve carved out a successful career as a beauty director. I’ve won awards. I have a great passion for what I do. But I need more. Why should my career be defined by one entity? Increasingly, I see my future working life as – and I shudder at this term – multidisciplinary; the weaving together of several different threads. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.
Next, I call my mother and tell her I’ve got some news. I know she’s disappointed that this news isn’t pregnancy-related (because she quite plainly tells me she’s disappointed that my news isn’t pregnancy-related). Gathering herself, she explains how proud she is of me for chasing after the thing I want and admits that she is also a little bit envious. I’ve had the opportunity to do two degrees; it was never an option for her to do one. It occurs to me that actually, the prospect of further education is something so many of us would leap at. But life gets in the way. Life, and, of course, the gigantic, stultifying cost. My three-year degree, like most these days, costs a grand total of £27,000. That’s a deposit on a house for many people. I have a mortgage to pay and no savings. Plus, as I took out a student loan for my first degree, I’m not eligible for another. A part-time degree would allow to me to continue to work full time alongside it, but would take six years – an incomprehensible stretch of time, like trying to imagine the size of the universe. Shorter NVQ courses exist too, but I know I have to do this full throttle.
Though I’ll pay in instalments, it’s possible we’ll need to take equity out of the flat or apply for a loan in my second or third year. I’ll still be contributing to Stylist as beauty director-at-large and with the consultancy work I’ve built up as well as the odd writing commission at the weekend, I should be able to make ends meet. Fortunately, I have a really supportive husband who roots for me like a stage mum, and – though it flies in the face of my belligerent self-reliance – he’s willing to pick up some more of the bills here and there if I’m stone broke. It’ll be a tough slog but we’ll make it work. After all, this is for our future, not just mine. In three years time, I’ll be a fully qualified acupuncture practitioner, who also writes about beauty. There could even be a skincare brand in incubation or a baby on the way – who knows? That’s the beauty of all of this; I don’t know exactly where it’ll take me, but the journey will be an exhilarating ride.
At work two weeks later, An email from UCAS lands in my inbox. Hallelujah! I have two unconditional offers. I air punch in the office loos. It’s a small victory but I’m giddy with joy; the match has been lit. In exactly 83 days, I will be a student again. It’s 10 years since I graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a 2:1. But don’t let that result fool you: I was a terrible student. Sloping around with dyed black hair and skater jeans, I saw uni as nothing more than a way to put off my induction into the adult workforce. I did what every student did and drank heavily throughout.
Back then, mature students – the tragically keen motley crew of 30 and 40-somethings who sat in the front row of our lecture room – were nothing more than an invisible irritation. I once had to work on a project with a mature student, Riccardo, who had the gall to call me one evening to discuss it. What did he think this place was, a university? No, we were there to play.
Now, I am Riccardo. I’ll be the one raising an eyebrow at other students for chatting during lectures while I sit at the front with my Dictaphone and notepad. And that’s OK. Like Riccardo, I just want to learn.
As I write, it’s just 14 days until I begin my course at Westminster University. I’ve laminated my timetable (I’m quite proud of this) and am steaming through the reading list. Still, there are anxieties (quite a few). 1. Wrestling with the overwhelming desire to stay in bed and watch Seinfeld reruns every day. This is very plausible. Must establish a routine. 2. Exams. Deadlines I am OK with, deadlines have reigned over my working life for a decade. But exams? I have no idea what revising actually is any more, is it just learning things off by heart? 3. Will there be a freshers’ week? More to the point: am I expected to attend freshers’ week? Cue terrifying images of pub crawls and pints of snakebite. 4. And this is a biggie: will I silently drop out of the beauty world – an industry in which I’ve spent 10 years climbing up the ladder of? Will going from beauty expert to acupuncture novice dent my ego to the point of self sabotage? With one foot in two different worlds, will it end up tearing me in two?
Regardless, I won’t let fear cause me to fail. The only person who can make this work is me. And the only person who can mess it up is me. I’m relying on the fistful of grit inside me still being there. The grit that got me my dream job as beauty director of this very magazine at the age of 27.
I’ll be taking that grit back into the classroom with me until I make it through the other side. Humans are biologically built to learn. Education is a necessary part of evolution. I’m primed. I’m ready. I just wish it didn’t cost so bloody much.
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Shot on location at the Ragged School Musuem (raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk)