'I sincerely hope that my story might help somebody experiencing personal adversity to become empowered to return to education'

Dungloe woman Carleen Walsh graduates with a PhD in Psychology this week after turning to education during the most difficult moments in her life.

Dr Carleen (Walsh) Gallagher always wanted to be a teacher when she was growing up. Inspired by the positive influence of her own schoolteachers, Carleen quickly realised the impact of these role models who had nurtured a love for lifelong learning, and decided to pursue a career in teaching maths and science in a post-primary school in her hometown, Dungloe.

It was in this school, in an area deemed to be of educational disadvantage, that Carleen realised the challenges many of her pupils faced, and the specialist support they would need. Carleen decided to return to education herself to expand her skillset in the hopes of providing that much needed support to those pupils.

Carleen’s first return to education was undertaking a Master’s in Special Educational Needs. It was during this time that things in her personal life were changing, and she was faced with challenges beyond academia:

“During my Master’s, we welcomed our first-born child. Our little girl was born prematurely and was diagnosed with an incurable, rare and life-limiting skin disease. Due to her medical needs, we were immediately transferred from Donegal to the National Children’s Hospital in Dublin where she spent her first eight months of life.”

Carleen and her daughter Lucy

For others, this difficult set of circumstances could derail their studies but for Carleen, it had the opposite effect:

“Although it was challenging, I decided to try completing my Master’s while my daughter was in hospital. Everyone deals with personal adversity differently; I gained comfort in returning from the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] each night knowing I could distract my racing mind by reading and writing. For me, education served as the comfort blanket that I needed to maintain sanity during a really difficult hospital admission. Education became my mindfulness and self-care time.”

As Carleen and her husband were adjusting to their new caregiving roles and responsibilities, and having successfully completed her Master’s, life took another unexpected turn in May 2017. Late in pregnancy, their twin boys developed a severe and sudden onset of twin-to-twin transfusion disease. Despite emergency medical interventions, complications meant they lost both babies within a week of their birth.

Faced with such loss, Carleen once again reached for her comfort blanket – education – and began researching what was available in the field of psychology. Carleen’s dream came true when she was offered a PhD scholarship with the Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus.

With the support of international experts and caregivers, Carleen’s PhD looked at developing and validating the first needs assessment e-tool for dermatological caregivers.

During the PhD, Carleen gave birth to their third-born son, who despite being almost two months premature, is thriving. Carleen describes how she kept going despite being faced with obstacles throughout her studies:

“A PhD is a hard-fought journey that requires sacrifice, discipline and dedication. For me, that meant working online when my children napped, or after our daughter’s homecare nursing team arrived for night shift. When I reflect, I wonder how we managed to juggle things and maintain relatively good physical and emotional health. For that, huge credit must go to the unfailing support I received from my ever-patient and supportive husband, extended family, supervisory team, the Doctoral College at Ulster University, my daughter’s home-care nursing team and my current employer.”

Carleen has now completed her PhD and returned to teaching full-time. While her research has been published in high quality peer-reviewed medical journals and has won several prestigious awards, it’s not just about academia and accolades.

Carleen explains: “My greatest success is having an improved appreciation, sensitivity and understanding of life, given my lived experience of loss, defeat and trauma. I remind myself daily that the beautiful thing about love is that illness and death need not stop life. I feel truly honoured that my children proved both my motivation and inspiration for starting and completing this PhD.”

Carleen hopes to inspire her pupils to continue their learning to third level education. For anyone considering a university education – whether that’s undergraduate or postgraduate study and at whatever age, Carleen’s advice is:

“Remember that everything is temporary, and you have survived everything you’ve experienced up to this point. I sincerely hope that my story might help somebody experiencing personal adversity to become empowered to return to education.”