How education became a family affair for the O’Reillys

Joanne and James O'Reilly returned to study together at Griffith University, following in the footsteps of four of their kids.

WHEN Joanne O’Reilly saw her fifth child begin university it reminded her that she always wanted to finish the degree she started 20 years ago.

The timing was right: she and husband James were well-placed to return to study, having sold their shares in two businesses.

They discussed their options and decided that, together, they would give study another go. “I thought it would be cute,” James said, “we could have lunch in the quadrangle and stuff like that.”

James enrolled in a Bachelor of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, and Joanne resumed a Bachelor of Education.

They chose Griffith University and followed in the footsteps of four of their kids, who were either still studying, or had graduated from, the same university.

The youngest two O’Reilly kids — of seven children — were still in high school. With so much study going on, it was easy for the family to bond over education.

“At family get-togethers we often find ourselves talking about our uni experience; it’s brought the whole family closer together,” James said.

James graduated on 18 December, and although he and Joanne never had that lunch in the quadrangle, they did find many other ways to support each other.

Date nights consisted of James sitting at one end of the dining table and Joanne at the other as they both completed assignments.

“It’s been fun,” James said. “We’ve learned a lot; we’ve tutored each other, we’ve encouraged each other, and we’ve been frustrated together.”

James has a long-time interest in photography — the walls of the family home are lined with stunning photographs of travel and family events.

Joanne, meanwhile, had always been drawn to the maths and sciences, and she saw the need for more STEM teachers, so continued the degree she started as a 19-year-old.

“I think that if there’s any way you can help society, then do it,” she said.

Even during her degree, Joanne felt like she was making a difference, as she took part in placements, planned programs and created assessments for the students.

“That’s certainly been a highlight of the degree — to be able to do practice in schools and have relationships with the students and be mentored by the teachers,” she said.

Inspired by the grandkids

James has dreamed of walking across the stage to receive a degree for a long time. To get there, it hasn’t been easy.

“There’s been times that it’s been tough, but when my kids see me walk across stage, I hope that’s one of the things they remember about Dad,” he said.

“And if Grandpa can do it while he’s working and doing other things then they could easily do it themselves.”

Joanne said it was a bonus that being back at university inspired their two girls who were still in high school.

“I’m used to being the stay-at-home mum and supporting the kids and making sure they’re doing OK in school, but studying myself added to their desire to sit down and study, which was great.”

The practical side to James and Jodie’s return to university was that it provided them job security into the future. James plans to continue his studies to become a high school teacher just like Joanne.

“For the past 10 or 12 years I’ve worked for US-based companies, and it’s not uncommon in our industry to get a phone call on a Monday morning and they say, ‘hey, you’ve finished up’.

“When we sold our shares in a couple of businesses that we had, we made the decision that we should go back to university to ‘recession-proof’ ourselves.”

James worked full-time during his degree in a job that included extensive travel, but he found the flexibility offered at Griffith University allowed him to juggle his time effectively.

“Technology has made the university experience a lot more pliable and malleable, which allows it to meet the needs of mature-age students and their busy schedules,” he said.

The couple worked together to make study fit around their lives.

Joanne said, “We had different timetables, so it worked out that either one of us were here to do pickups or drop-offs for school, or either one of us were here to cook dinner.

“James certainly stepped up. It’s been nice, because he has always been the breadwinner, and I’ve always looked after the home. It’s been a complete change where we both share the roles.”

Joanne O’Reilly graduates from a Bachelor of Education in the first half of 2019.

What’s it like as a mature-age student?

At university, students learn from their tutors and they learn from each other. James came into study expecting to be able to pass on knowledge to the younger generation, but found he learned more from them.

“I think like a 52-year-old man, and I was in a group of five or six students that are aged between 17 and 22 — it’s been great to get their thoughts and insights and understand the way they look at life. That greatly enhanced my learning experience at university,” he said.

While James had a lot of experience with younger students in his photography classes, Joanne found a support group of peers studying a Bachelor of Education.

“It’s been a very close-knit group of maybe six or eight of us that have gotten along really well as parents,” she said.

A remarkable achievement

James believes that education is the key to successful futures. “It’s a great thing all around for you and your personal well-being to be able to keep learning throughout your life,” he added.

So does he consider what he and Joanne have achieved is remarkable?

“I like to think that we’re pretty remarkable at 52 and 49 to have completed tertiary studies. I think that’s remarkable, and if I can share that with somebody else, even a young person, that would be great.

Joanne added, “Going into education, that’s what I’m all about: passing it on to the next generation and having a positive influence on other people.”