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Andrea Vasarhelyi-Szilagyi.

Parent, teacher, student, employee, volunteer, event planner, translator.

It’s quite a list of roles for one person to balance but University of Chester graduate Andrea Vasarhelyi-Szilagyi has taken them all on and is proof of Thomas Edison’s words that there really is “no substitute for hard work”.

With commitment and determination, she has achieved a degree in Event Management and International Tourism Management with a Foundation Year - all while studying in a second language, caring for two young children, home schooling during a pandemic, working - and still somehow fitting in time for volunteering in the community and extra-curricular activities.

It marks a jam-packed four years since, at the age of 33 and without traditional qualifications, she embarked on the course.

Andrea, who has lived in Chester for 14 years and is originally from Budapest, Hungary, explained how she first took the step into higher education: “Although I felt a strong connection to the field of hospitality, retail and events, I was a bit unsure whether University study was achievable for me.

“Having worked in the industry for a long time, I wanted to know more than just the basics. I was eager to find out more about the planning of events, and always felt driven by the feeling of watching a successful event unfold as the result of several days, weeks or even months’ worth of hard work and dedication. I just felt that was a career for me; I knew I had it in me as a person to become an event manager.

“At the same time, as a mother of two young children, who is always busy and with a long gap since I last sat at a school desk, I was a bit sceptical.

“But my family and friends were very encouraging, and I discovered that the University of Chester offered an Event Management and International Tourism Management course with a Foundation Year. That was a game changer for me as the foundation year seemed like a fantastic opportunity to polish up for the course, I do not think I would have opted for going into higher education without that.

“The foundation year was an excellent base and gave me the chance to gain a good level of understanding about law, maths and general study skills. The support was fantastic, and as I am from a different country, it enabled me to get used to a different curriculum too.”

Andrea said that as she progressed in her degree, it was important for her to also make the most of extra-curricular activities, gain experience and offer time and input to support the community.

“The University offers such fantastic opportunities for students, and as much as it is sometimes a little frightening to take the first steps, it is all worth it. I remember taking the first tentative steps in the building when I signed up for the Virgin Money Growth Potential Programme during my foundation year. It takes some dedication to undertake activities which are outside the core teaching because one may think that it takes time away from preparing for assignments. But the fact is, I strongly think that these additional things made my learning experience so much richer.

“I always felt supported during my undergraduate years too, and the additional opportunities from my department were priceless. This included great moments, such as volunteering at the graduation ceremonies, the We Will Remember Them event, commemorating the heroes of Chester during The Great War, and the Christmas Lights Switch-On.

“I was also part of a project where myself and another three students secured a £500 Santander Community Fund and organised a tea party for elderly members of the community in partnership with the University and the Contact the Elderly (now Re-engage) charity. This event was a memorable experience for our guests, but also quite a transformational experience for me too. This eventually led to me using my own initiative and becoming a volunteer at a week-long event called the Timber Festival which aims to provide a unique family experience focusing on art, culture and the outdoors. During the pandemic, I also still managed to help this organisation as a communication assistant in a virtual activity event.”

As seen with her volunteering, the pandemic, while presenting challenges, failed to stop Andrea in her tracks.

“I am very proud of what I achieved because gaining a degree in a second language alone is quite challenging. Considering that I also have family and work commitments, there were some very challenging times when it needed quite a bit of manoeuvring to manage it all. The pandemic made it extra hard for me, because my children, aged five and nine, spent a lot of time at home during school closures and they needed home schooling, which made it difficult to find study time for myself.

“Those were the times when I drew strength from looking back on why I started my university studies in the first place. And it was because I wanted a more fulfilling career; one that brings opportunities and excitement, one that puts a spring in my step and a smile on my face every day.”

Asked about what stands out for her, the 37-year-old added: “Being given the Dean’s Commendation Award for Performance was definitely the highlight of it all because it is such a great honour to receive it. I was overjoyed; happiness does not do it justice and adequately describe how I felt. I kept re-reading the email that notified me, and check that it was addressed to me."

Looking ahead, it may be no surprise that Andrea’s future plans involve a range of initiatives, including a PRINCE2® project management course and a volunteering position at the Metabolic Support UK charity, to build up a perspective of events of all kinds and scales.

On her experience at the University, she reflected that: “Getting a degree challenged me in the right way, changed the way I think and overall, changed my life for the better. I am deeply grateful for the help and patience of my inspiring lecturers at the Centre for Foundation Studies and the Department of Experience Economy at Chester Business School. I simply could not have achieved any of this without their encouragement and support.”

Jan O’Driscoll, Director of Foundation Years at the University of Chester said: “Andrea has worked exceptionally hard throughout her degree since beginning her Foundation Year in 2017.

“She has juggled full-time study in a second language along with parenting, employment, volunteering in the community, and engaging with all manner of opportunities that are available to her.

“She is a shining example of what someone can achieve.”

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Graduate event management international tourism foundation studies COVID-19