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DipSW in Social Work, 1984, Coleraine

BSc Hons Social Administration, 1982, Coleraine

One of the most exciting and nerve wracking days of my life was in September 1979 when my parents, accompanied by my siblings Fiona and Conor, drove me to Coleraine for the first time as an official UU student.

We first had a picnic on Portstewart Beach - the weather surprisingly clement but I couldn’t eat my sandwiches quick enough as all I wanted to do was get to my new life of independence and see my room in the Halls of Residence on the campus - which have now been demolished, I believe.

Whilst I was born in Derry, and my parents and family are all from Belfast, I grew up in Lurgan, so Coleraine felt like a million miles from home. Whilst I had a charmed and privileged childhood, one of the reasons I wanted to move away from Lurgan was to get away from the sectarianism and segregated community we grew up in. The ‘Troubles’ plagued our lives and I grew up knowing nothing different. Like many, I experienced the violence first hand several times and lost friends and loved ones.  I loved my family dearly and didn’t want to leave them but at 18, it was time to flee the nest. I also broke my father’s heart temporarily by not going to Queens University, which he of course thought was the ‘superior’ university. I knew I did not want to live in Belfast as the situation there was always volatile as well. More importantly, I wanted to do Social Work and had heard very good reports on the course at Coleraine and it seemed more suited to my aspirations. Hence my arrival at the New University of Ulster (NUU) in 1979.

Another big reason for going to Coleraine was a pact I had made with my high school friend Fionnuala - we pledged we would go together wherever we both got accepted, so we were over the moon when we could make this a reality. We both wanted our independence, but we also very much wanted the security of having at least one friend to share this new journey with. And what a journey we had - I tell my sons constantly those five years were the most fun and carefree days of my life!

Living in ‘Halls’ for the first year was great ‘craic’ and it wasn’t long before the friendship circle grew rapidly, we made so many new friends it felt like we had known each other for life. A very special moment was making a lovely new friend, June from Donaghadee, we are still friends to this day even though we now live on opposite sides of the globe.

Karen Flanagan and friends

We joined so many different societies and sporting clubs, as well as being well engaged in the Students' Union and I also volunteered on the Student Helpline at the time. We mixed with the Gaelic, Soccer and Rugby teams and religion was never mentioned, no one cared! We all played different sports, supported, shared and celebrated each others' successes, mostly in the Uni Bar, which progressed to the Anchor Bar when we moved to live in Portstewart after our first year ended. We had countless house parties - epic really - all very innocent fun of course! Romances came and went but amazingly some of these friends married each other and are still as happy as ever. I was also lucky to make a whole new bunch of friends when I started my postgraduate course in social work, again another brilliant bunch of humans, and a new ‘bestie’ being Patricia from Omagh. We are also still close mates to this day and she has visited me in Australia.

My younger sister Fiona also came to NUU to do social work, so we shared a house in my final year which was also a highlight to share this part of our journey to independence together.

Karen Flanagan

Whilst I began my social work in Northern Ireland working in social services in Belfast, unexpectedly I met a guy (originally from Lurgan coincidentally) who had emigrated to Melbourne as a child - he was on a flying visit to see his granny in Lurgan when we met. As a result of this ‘love story’, I left Northern Ireland in 1986 to live in Melbourne, thankfully all my family followed over the years and we are all together in Melbourne.

The friendships made at uni have resulted in various reunions over the years, including one organized by the University. In addition, as a result of my job as an International Child Protection Technical Advisor for Save the Children, I travel frequently to Europe and the UK and have always been able to arrange side trips to nip home, or on occasions friends have flown to various countries in Europe to meet me. I have also gone ‘home’ for holidays, particularly when my sons were younger, seeing my university and high school friends has and always will be a big priority, they are after all my ‘framily’ #friendfamily! The last trip home was in 2019 and I was able to catch up with several of my university friends.

Karen Flanagan

Whilst I have now lived in Australia longer than I lived in Northern Ireland, I have always considered my five years at ‘NUU’ the best and most fun filled carefree days of my life. The bonus of course to all this happy reminiscing, much to my parent’s relief and great pride, is the fact I graduated as a Social Worker and have spent the last 37 years in a career that I feel very fortunate and privileged to have. There is no doubt my education and entire university experience positioned me well for success, coupled with an absolute belief and commitment to realising the protection rights of children all over the globe.

The old saying is true - find something you love and you will never work a day in your life!

In addition, the friends I made at ‘NUU’ are definitely friends for life,17,000 kms distance has not changed this! After all, we are now in our 60’s but can still enjoy ourselves as well now as we could then, any chance we get. I can’t wait to get back ‘home’ to see them and I will be on a plane out of Melbourne as soon as it is remotely possible to do so.