Would YOU join your child at university?

Would YOU join your child at university? As thousands of mothers prepare to wave their children off to college, meet one who decided she’d enrol at the same campus as her son

  • Gail went to university at the age of 48 after an accident ended her police career 
  • She ended up going to the same university as her son Ben, to his astonishment 
  • Gail took to uni life well and her maternal instinct kicked in – she would take in cereal bars for her fellow undergraduates 

You can well imagine the heated conversation that ensued when Gail Ennis announced to her son Ben that she’d be joining him at university. 

‘When Mum said, “I’m coming too,” I said, “No you’re not!” I was horrified. It was just so embarrassing,’ he recalls. ‘I said, “I don’t want you to come. Why are you following me?” I was worried she’d be a busybody. When she insisted she’d be going I said, “OK then,” just to stop her whingeing on.’ 

Gail remembers the tense exchange equally vividly: ‘Ben was really mad. We had a very impassioned debate about it. 

‘Maybe I was presumptuous. I did think, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this fair?” But it was the fulfilment of a dream for me. I didn’t want to follow him round. 

Gail (pictured) went to university at the age of 48 after an off-duty road accident ended her police career in 2008. She ended up attending the same campus as her son Ben, who was mortified at first

‘I promised him, “It’ll be fine. I won’t interfere at all. Just ignore me.”’ 

Gail, now 48, had missed the chance to go to university in her teens — joining the police instead — and was determined to seize this mid-life opportunity despite her son’s misgivings. 

So while most mothers are intent on encouraging their children’s first steps into their own bright futures, helping them with their university application forms and ferrying them to open days and interviews, before proudly waving them goodbye as they begin their rite of passage, extraordinarily Gail decided she would accompany Ben on his academic journey. 

He wouldn’t be flying the nest so much as taking wing with his mum in his slipstream. 

After threeyear degree courses, they graduated on the same day — Gail with a first in childhood, youth studies and criminology; Ben (pictured) with an upper second in ecology and conservation

In the event, Gail and Ben, who is now 24, to their unending incredulity — and despite their pledge to stay apart — actually ended up sharing friends; even socialising together. 

There is plenty of light-hearted banter between them on this particular topic.

‘One of my best mates, Jack, was in Mum’s class,’ says Ben. 

‘Actually he’s my friend Jack,’ objects Gail. ‘He was on my course and I introduced him to you.’ 

‘Well, I ended up staying at his house and going to parties with him,’ counters Ben. 

‘And I used to take his washing home with yours,’ adds Gail. ‘Once I even ironed it for him.’

Last month, after threeyear degree courses, they graduated on the same day — Gail with a first in childhood, youth studies and criminology; Ben with an upper second in ecology and conservation. 

Gail insists that despite her pledge to observe strict boundaries between their lives, their experience was the richer for being shared. 

All very well and good — but does Ben agree? 

‘I have to admit, grudgingly, that my friends thought Mum was quite cool,’ he concedes. ‘It was kind of nice: people were more friendly with me because they knew her and gave me insights into how she was doing in class — although I’d be like, “I don’t care what Mum did. I’m on a night out!”’ 

‘And Jack used to send me videos at 3am of what they were all getting up to and say, “Get down to this club,”’ puts in Gail. ‘But I never went clubbing with them. Instead I’d text at 8am the next morning and say, “Get down to this seminar!” 

One wonders how that went down — surely Ben thought his mum overbearing? ‘Sometimes she’d nag me about getting essays in on time but I just ignored her if she did,’ he says. 

Ben (pictured as a young child with his mother) maintained a healthy distance between himself and his mum. She was, however, delighted, to be welcomed into the social circle of students on her course — most of them 30 years her junior

Ben had been working on a marine conservation project in Fiji when he realised, in order to progress to a graduate post in the field, he needed a science degree and decided, in June 2019, to go to Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, near the family home in Southport, Merseyside. 

‘I had a few friends at Edge Hill University and had been on to the campus which is 30 minutes’ drive from home,’ he says. ‘It was the obvious place to go.’ 

As Gail helped Ben with his application, her interest was piqued: ‘I thought, “I’d like to go to university, too.” I hadn’t had the opportunity when I left school — my parents were divorcing and it was quite a chaotic time — so I’d enrolled with Merseyside Police at 19 instead. 

‘But I’d always wanted to take a degree.’ 

Life intervened, as it does, to prevent her from studying. For the first three years of her much-loved son’s life, she raised him as a single parent while holding down her demanding job. Her ex partner didn’t want to commit to fatherhood. 

‘I think during those early years we spent together, just the two of us, a special bond of closeness was formed,’ she says. 

Then in 2001 she met mechanic Andy Ennis, 53; they married and had daughter Sophie in 2005. Andy embraced Ben as his own son and has raised him as his dad. 

In 2008, as a result of an off-duty road accident, Gail’s career in the police ended. 

‘Although I was sorry to leave, I was glad to be able to focus on bringing up the children and become a full-time mum,’ she says. 

So when Ben began to consider studying for a degree, Gail felt the time was right for her too. 

‘I didn’t have long to make up my mind — I left it until the last minute to apply — but perhaps if I’d reflected longer I might not have gone with Ben,’ she admits. 

And so the astonishing decision was made: Gail would be joining her son as he embarked on his degree. 

Gail and Ben started university together in October 2019 and so began the unlikely mum-and-son academic pairing. ‘Mum only came out with us once in the evening, but sometimes we’d meet for lunch. 

‘And I always had the benefit of the Bank of Mum if I was hungry on campus. I’d hover outside her classroom and ask her if she’d like to go to the canteen with me so she could buy my food!’ 

Ben’s manner is laconic; his humour bone dry. In contrast Gail is effervescent and chatty: it is easy to see why fellow students warmed to her. 

‘I had the occasional beer in the student bar with Ben and he’d sometimes invite me to play pool or snooker. Ben and I were quite competitive. Sometimes I’d even beat him,’ she smiles. 

Gail, Ben and his girlfriend Clida on their graduation day. Ever maternal and concerned that her fellow undergraduates weren’t eating breakfast, she took in cereal bars to morning lectures

But for Gail, profoundly grateful for the chance to take a degree, the focus was on academic work: she made a conscious decision not to socialise with fellow students in the evenings. 

‘What is the point in going to university in your 40s if you don’t devote 100 per cent to studying?’ she asks. 

It was, she says, a ‘shock’ to discover that the younger students did not always turn up for lectures and seminars. ‘I’d WhatsApp them and try to encourage them to come along,’ she recalls. 

Ben seems to have accepted her interventions with remarkable equanimity. ‘If Mum nagged me I didn’t take any notice,’ he says. ‘I’d tell her I’d handed essays in when I hadn’t. And mostly she left me to it.

‘I found it quite funny that she’d send texts to my mates, too. I’d tell them to take no notice as well.’ 

Ben maintained a healthy distance between himself and his mum. She was, however, delighted, to be welcomed into the social circle of students on her course — most of them 30 years her junior. 

‘I’d expected to get along on my own, but the opposite happened: the kindness, warmth and acceptance they showed me was endearing and inspiring. 

‘I think they’d forget my age. They’d talk to me about their nights out and sometimes I’d say, “That’s too much information.” And I’d think, “Do I really need to know all this?” 

‘And when I met Jack (who, at 22 was, like Ben, a mature student) I said, “I’ve got a son the same age as you.” I introduced them and they became best friends. 

‘Sometimes the students on my course would ask me to read their assignments, but I had to remind them, “Although I’m old, it doesn’t mean I’m wise.”’ 

So far from proving a source of mortification to Ben, his mum’s presence appeared to give him a certain cachet among his fellow students. 

Gail, it seems, was popular because — although friendly and outgoing — she never quite relinquished her motherly role, and certainly did not try to become a born-again teenager. 

‘I’d get lots of invitations to go out clubbing, but I always refused,’ she confirms. ‘Ben would be going out at 10.30 in the evening just as I was going to bed. 

‘Friends on my course would invite me out but I’d explain, “I have a husband and daughter at home.” And I wanted to study. It was my dream. I always got my assignments done two weeks early, while the youngsters seemed to be finishing theirs two hours before they were supposed to be handed in. 

Five tips for parents whose kids are starting university …Alone!

By Dr Emma Hepburn aka The Pyschology Mum

PRACTICAL PREPARATIONS 

Discuss vital skills that your child will need at university: budgeting, household tasks (such as laundry) and first aid. Teach them some simple recipes, too. And pack their favourite mug from home. It will offer comfort if feeling homesick. 

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT 

It’s normal for your child to have mixed emotions on leaving home. And most universities have a wellbeing centre that can help students look after themselves. Encourage your child to maintain connections, stay hydrated, get a good night’s sleep and eat well. If they’re struggling, suggest going to their GP to see what help is available.

DO A RECON TRIP 

Moving your child to university can feel like a military operation so, if you can, visit the campus beforehand. Locate the student union, the sports facilities and their lecture rooms. Visit their accommodation and locate the laundry room, dining facilities, nearest supermarket, GP surgery and register them there. This will help them feel more settled when they start term.  

KEEPING IN TOUCH 

Speak about how and when you will catch up and let them know you are always there to talk. Send texts to show you care but don’t be upset if they don’t reply — college life can be hectic for freshers. 

FIND SOME ME TIME 

Starting university isn’t just a transition for your child but for you too, so take care of yourself. Talk to friends in the same position. You’ll also probably have some time on your hands, so do something you’ve always wanted to but couldn’t when the kids were home — a quiz night, cooking or simply having the TV remote to yourself. And remember, it’s normal to be worried about your children but they will be back before you know it (probably with a pile of laundry!) 

  • A Toolkit for Happiness by Dr Emma Hepburn, Greenfinch, £14.99. 

Ever maternal and concerned that her fellow undergraduates weren’t eating breakfast, she took in cereal bars to morning lectures. ‘I had a big spotty bag full of them and I used to put them in the front of the classroom and say, “help yourself.” 

‘I’d see Ben coming out of Starbucks and I’d be horrified that he and his friends spent £60 a month on coffee while I took in a teabag from home and boiled a kettle in the common room. They’d buy pizzas while I made my own sandwiches. 

‘I’d challenge Ben and he’d just laugh. But I’d be counting the cost of everything and thinking, “That would pay for Sophie’s music lessons.”’ 

Ben insists he did not feel restricted by his mum’s presence. ‘I lived at home, but I’d often stay with friends on campus overnight,’ he says. He also met his girlfriend Clida on his course. 

‘You’d have thought she’d have rolled her eyes when she knew I was studying at the uni too, but she always made me feel welcome,’ says Gail. Like every beleaguered mother of a student, Gail found herself doing Ben’s laundry. 

‘I used to give Mum a pile of washing to take home. She’d pick it up after her classes. She did my mate’s washing, too,’ Ben recalls. 

‘Actually it became normal,’ adds Gail. ‘There was a laundry on campus, but I was doing Ben’s washing and his girlfriend’s, so I offered to do Jack’s as well. I did it until Jack moved out into a shared house in the second year.’ 

But there were reciprocal benefits for Gail of studying with younger people: ‘I arrived at university lugging my massive bag full of paper and pens and I’d say to Ben, “How are you doing your work? You never have a pen to write with.” And he’d say, “I write everything on my computer.” 

‘That freaked me out. But he and his friends gave me more confidence about using technology. and I started to use my computer more.’ 

I ask if they were academically competitive. ‘Not really,’ replies Ben. 

‘I just aimed for the grade I wanted and did the best I could. Mum got a better grade than me but it didn’t faze me. She did an easier course.’ 

Was he pleased for her? ‘I have to say I was, don’t I?’ he deadpans. 

Gail recalls ringing Ben on results day — he was in London at the time — and asking what grade he’d got.

‘He told me, “The results are online now.” He had to talk me through how to access mine. 

‘I said, “It says 1 by my name,” and he explained that meant I’d got a first. He laughed and said, “Well done.” 

‘We weren’t vying with each other to get the highest grade. I’m just very proud of Ben and all he’s achieved. 

‘I know how challenging it is to take a degree because I’ve done one myself. 

‘And the young people have to find time to fit in all their socialising, too.’ 

Both Gail and Ben excelled in their different ways. He volunteered with the National Trust. Both this and his transformation of the university allotment from an overgrown patch of weeds into a flourishing vegetable garden — much of his free time was spent tending and watering plants — earned him scholarships that added up to £4,000.

Meanwhile, Gail volunteered in a high-security prison, joining the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) — insuring prisoners were treated fairly and humanely — and also worked unpaid as a counsellor with Childline, for which she won a £1,000 scholarship. 

She hopes to get a full-time job with the IMB. 

Ben, meanwhile, is spending six months teaching diving in Croatia. It comes as no surprise that Gail has joined him, with Sophie, for three weeks. 

‘When I said, “I’m coming to Croatia,” he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK.” 

‘He paid for his own flight and I chipped in with his travel insurance. 

‘Wherever he goes, I follow!’ she laughs. It is a measure of Ben’s equability that he has introduced Gail to all his friends there. 

I wonder if she ever feels her proximity to Ben is suffocating.? 

‘It’s just normal for us,’ she says. ‘I hope I never cross the line of interfering in his life. 

‘Wherever Ben has travelled in the world — when he went to Fiji and to study in Sweden for a year — I’d say, “Home will always be here when you get back.” 

‘I think the problem is when families drift apart. 

‘It’s much more worrying when parents don’t want to see their children. That’s when society starts to break down.’ 

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