Postgraduate Lives: 'We'll be studying the new Pope'

Martha Rose Coll, Catholic studies Masters student
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The Independent Online

I was born and raised a Catholic - what's known as a "cradle Catholic" - and I've been interested in religion since I was eight. I decided to do a postgraduate degree at the age of 60 because I love learning. That's it, simply. I wasn't looking for a job. I have always loved studying, but I wanted a structured, disciplined form of study. I started the course last September and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

I did my undergraduate degree in English and history, and then a teaching qualification in religious studies. I worked as a high-school teacher and then took early retirement to nurse my husband who was sick. After my husband died, I went to Poland for three years to do voluntary work for the church, working with young people. I was then offered a job as pastoral assistant at the Holy Family Church in Aberdeen. My pastoral work involves visiting people in their homes, often when they are sick, and I also work as chaplain at the local hospital and at the Holy Family primary school.

I looked at postgraduate theology courses and discovered Aberdeen, which is in my own area and has one of the best courses available because it's a mix of history and culture. I asked the Bishop if he had any objections, and he said he was delighted.

I had been away from university for 15 years and the system has changed a lot. It was quite difficult writing essays again, and I'm not very computer literate - I don't know how to surf the web. It was also difficult finding time to study and to fit that around my pastoral work. I'm doing the course part-time, so I cover four modules over two years. For each module, we write a 4,000-word essay and sit a three-hour exam, as well as writing a 20,000-word dissertation in the second year. The course covers the 15th century to the present day. At the moment, we are up to the late Pope John Paul II, but we will be looking at the writings of the new Pope Benedict XVI [pictured].

At first, I was worried that I would go in as an older woman and there would be no form of social interaction, but it has been totally different to what I expected. We're all mature students on this course, but what's really good is that students from other disciplines can opt to join a module, and this broadens things because you get their input as well. This way, I meet younger students and I'm involved in their conversations.

The course has made me think a great deal about what I believe, and this has given me a totally new outlook. It's really valuable in my work, too, because it helps me to understand my own church's teachings and I can then explain them to others. I'd love to do a PhD, but let's see if I survive this one first - it's very intense!