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“The first day I started university I thought ‘what am I doing here?’”

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Published on 17 January 2022

Alan Barlow
Alan Barlow

With a young family at home and running a successful sports massage therapy business – Alan Barlow questioned whether he’d made the right career decision to study a Physiotherapy degree, fulfilling a life-long ambition.

But fast forward almost three years later and all those first-day nerves, as the oldest student to sign up to the University of Sunderland’s brand-new Physiotherapy programme, have long since disappeared.

The 46-year-old says it’s been one of the best decisions he’s ever made, and thanks to planning, organisational skills and dedication to the course, he’s been able continue his business, albeit on a smaller scale, and even found his degree goals have changed.

“I had planned to incorporate the physiotherapy into my sport massage business when I started this journey,” explained Alan, from Newcastle.

“But since taking part in three placements at hospital trusts within the region during the course, I’ve found the work so incredibly rewarding, that I now plan to work within a NHS setting once my degree is complete in the summer.

“The work has been so varied, from working in an intensive care unit, pediatrics and elderly care to supporting amputee patients, it’s been so special. Also seeing the impact you can have on patients' lives is so rewarding and just changed the course of what I now want to do. I was also able to bring so much of the training and knowledge I’d learned from the course into placement, which was brilliant.”

Alan, who has two daughters aged 10 and 12, added: “I have always been involved in sports from an early age. I played football to a descent standard at junior level, and really wanted to study physiotherapy by the age of 18, but chose to head straight into work instead and put the dream to one side.”

After working into his late 20s Alan took an Open University course in International Environmental Politics. He then set up the sports massage business, first at a Newcastle-based gym, before taking his services mobile.

Four years ago, the entrepreneur also began to create sports massage wax, which he continues to sell to physiotherapists and massage therapists around the country. But it’s in healthcare where he believes he has now found his true calling.

Alan says: “I thought I was too old to go back to university and really questioned myself on the first day, I thought ‘what am I doing here?’

“But Sunderland has made me so welcome, and the lecturers have been incredibly supportive. I have made great friends too on this course, of all ages. I am just so pleased I finally made the decision to pursue this dream and haven’t looked back since.”

Dr John Stephens, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy, said: “The broad range of life experience of our students is a real strength of our programme at the University of Sunderland. Everyone has a valuable and valued contribution to make in support of their own learning and development, that of others and the Physiotherapy programme.”