From education to employment

How I earned a Master’s degree without any GCSEs

Raf at his graduation

When you don’t have any formal qualifications, the world of higher education may seem closed off. I never dreamed I would be able to earn a Master’s degree without any GCSEs, but with a little bit of self-belief and a lot of support from my colleagues at Cygnet Health Care, I’ve learned that anything is possible. 

It all started when my colleague and mentor Vicky McNally, Corporate Governance Director at Cygnet, saw a tweet advertising a programme in Mental Health Recovery and Social Inclusion at the University of Hertfordshire and suggested I apply. At first, I was doubtful. I thought – how could I study for a Master’s when I barely went to school? 

With Vicky’s encouragement, I approached the university and was surprised by how accommodating they were. In the kindest way, they told me that my years of lived and professional experience with Cygnet Health Care could count towards my acceptance and I would only need to pass an exceptional circumstances test to be enrolled on the course. 

Three years later, I have just graduated and I am now considering a Doctorate in the area of Mental Health Policy. In my PhD dissertation, I hope to write about recovery colleges and analyse how patients experience them. I would like to look into ways of reducing inequalities in mental healthcare on a global and national level. My Master’s dissertation will also be published in the new Cygnet Journal that Dr Naresh Rasquinha, Regional Medical Director, has recently set up, meaning that other university students will be able to cite my work. 

In my culture and in my family, education is very important. Having spent time in mental health services when I was younger, I always felt that I missed out on that chapter of my life. I know many kids in our services may be feeling this way so I see my graduation as both a personal achievement and an achievement for the sector more broadly. I hope service users with similar experiences to me will be able to set ambitious goals in academia, and not feel limited by their educational background. 

From that first push from Vicky to the funding support I will be receiving in my upcoming doctorate research, everyone at Cygnet has given me the confidence and motivation to accomplish things that I never thought possible. My professional experience working as an Expert by Experience allowed me to understand mental health recovery from the ground up and my academic work will allow me to develop this into interesting and useful research in the mental health field. 

The support at university from the disability support team, my supervisors and student representatives has also been fantastic. I even became a student representative myself, so that I could help others in a similar position. 

The amazing people that I have worked with have inspired me to aim high and use my experience as an Expert by Experience and former service user to make a difference in other people’s lives. I have benefited from mentorship and shadowing opportunities from the CEO, Dr Tony Romero, and COO, Mike McQuaid and have enjoyed learning about what it’s like to run a large organisation. Cygnet are very generous in offering their staff informal and formal avenues for professional development, as they also run a trainee management programme. 

I will also continue to expand the Music2Empower programme that I have introduced to our services in the UK. It has already had a big impact on many service users and their recovery as music is such a powerful and positive force. 

After recovery, I thought I would never get the chance to enter education again but now I’m on track to become Dr Raf Hamaizia in a few years’ time. In the end, all it took was the support and kindness of some extraordinary people at Cygnet. 

Raf Hamaizia has served as the Expert by Experience Lead for Cygnet Health Care, since August 2016

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