Mark Garside swaps retail for a future career as a counsellor
“My degree in psychology has opened up the world for me”
Alumni volunteer Mark Garside (BSc Hons Psychology, 2020) has swapped retail for a future career as a counsellor, having waited more than 30 years for the opportunity to study at university.
At my school, going to university was the measure of success. But my father had come up through the apprenticeship route as an engineer and he couldn’t see why I needed to go. So I didn’t. But that urge to study never went away throughout all the years of my career.
In the 1980s, retail was a really exciting environment to be in. I started out on the Lloyd’s Bank management traineeship then after a couple of years I got my big break – the opportunity to join M&S. I stayed there for the next 20 years, moving first into buying and then into learning and development. At one point I was the performance management specialist for the entire IT team, despite having no IT background. It felt like every time there was a reorganisation I got a new opportunity to learn and grow. It was an incredible time.
Looking back, it’s not hard to trace the thread that was leading me to where I am today. After taking redundancy from M&S, for example, I set up on my own for a while as a performance management consultant. Working alone wasn’t for me – I need people around me – but what I really did enjoy was working with individuals, using my ability to question and listen to try to understand the challenges and barriers they were facing.
It took a bit of a crisis for me to finally take the jump. When I realised that self-employment wasn’t right for me, I went back to work, this time as Group Learning and Development Manager for the insurer Domestic & General. Again, it was a fascinating role – working with these very skilled, very senior insurance professionals to help develop their management skills. But for me, financial services had no heart.
After I left D&G I was quite unwell for a while. I realised I needed to take a step back so I took a job at Sainsburys, initially just working on the shop floor. I’d set out to find an environment where I could earn a bit of money and just feel safe and comfortable; what I got was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. The sheer diversity in terms of background, culture, attitudes to work, the insights into the challenges people were facing – from immigration to housing to domestic violence – was such an eye-opener for me.
University was my 50th birthday present to myself. After I started to feel better, I was looking around for a more senior retail role, but nothing appealed. I just thought, this is the time to do what I’ve always wanted to do. At the same time, I blew up the rest of my life by coming out. It was a time of enormous upheaval and change.
I had a feeling in my gut that LSBU was the place for me. A couple of other universities turned me down because of my poor A-level results, but LSBU gave me a place on the condition that I did a foundation year first. I can honestly say that was one of the best bits of learning I’ve ever done. It taught me how to write academically, use numbers and harness technology to support my learning and research. It was just brilliant.
My degree in psychology has opened up the world for me. I realised that I’d always wanted to be a psychotherapist. My degree was the first step on that journey. Now I’m living in Manchester with my husband, about to start a two-year part-time course that will give me a level 4 counselling qualification. The knowledge and the academic grounding I gained at LSBU have stood me in such good stead for everything I’ve done since.
The sense of personal satisfaction is enormous. Knowing that I’ve got a first class degree is such a source of joy to me. Then there’s the friendships I’ve made. I was by far the oldest person on the course and it was just so life-affirming being around all these young people. We learned from each other – I could help them with their CVs, with preparing to go out and find work – and they taught me that Ariana Grande is a singer, not a font. I’m still living that one down!
To anyone considering becoming a mature student, I’d say – do it. There’s always a way if you’re really passionate about what you want to do. Get on top of your finances, talk to the people that run the courses, learn as much as you can. That’s why I’m now working with LSBU as an alumni volunteer, to try to help other people who’re in the same situation I was.
When I left LSBU there were tears in my eyes. It’s such a special place. I couldn’t recommend it more highly, for the calibre of the staff, the quality of the teaching, the level of support that’s available. If you want to make the best of your experience, they’ll be with you every step of the way.