From education to employment

‘Mum would be proud’ – Student who cared for terminally ill mum fights odds to earn Master’s

@BristolUni – Michelle Mounsdon hopes sharing her “unimaginable life experiences” will show others that it is possible to survive – and even thrive – through the hardest of times.

When Michelle took on her Master’s in Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol she knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Alongside her studies she would continue single-handedly running a gymnastics club, while holding down a full-time job leading a team supporting children with complex needs.​

But, aged 40 and after a varied career that included working as an elite gymnastics coach and at ​anAmerican summer camp, Michelle had decided to follow her dream of becoming a child psychologist.

“I want to intervene before any mental health issues can get too serious,” she said. “The need for more child specialists right now is paramount, particularly with coronavirus causing more trauma ​for young people.”

But things soon got more difficult when she became ​a main carer for her mother.

“In the time it took from accepting my place to commencing the course my mum had been diagnosed with lung cancer, after she had been in remission from bladder cancer for several years,” she said.

“It meant sleepless nights, endless trips to hospital and all the other support and care that my mum needed – I lived with her so it was a full-time job in itself.”

Soon after starting at the University, Michelle was told that her mother​, a nurse of 40 years, was now terminal.

“I was sat outside a lecture when I got the call. I went in but I can’t remember anything that happened in the whole two-hour lecture.”

Looking back now, Michelle wonders how she managed. She would frequently work long days, look after her mother, Sheila, late into the evening and finish her University work in the early hours of the morning.

“You don’t know how you do it but you just find a way,” she said. “It’s amazing what a human can do when push comes to shove – and some juggle far more than I have.

“I had ​support from some amazing friends ​and ​family members and my supervisor at the Uni, Dr Rafael Mitchell, was beyond incredible.

“It really is possible to get through unimaginable life experience if you have something that helps you remain focussed and grounded. For me it was the goal of achieving my Master’s – initially as a positive incentive for my mum to keep fighting and then as a personal achievement for me to make her proud.”

Sadly, Sheila passed away in May 2019.

When Michelle’s results letter arrived earlier this year, it took her hours to pluck up the courage to open it.

“I can just remember looking out the window and bursting into tears, saying ‘I did it mum’,” she said.

Michele is now looking forward to a year ​off before starting a PhD.

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