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A month for big dreams and little successes;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

January is a sobering time for our students - not just because the partying is over. It is almost halfway through the full-time students' year, time to take stock and to face up to the realities.

Jenny had been dismissive of students who missed classes because they were juggling a job and courses. "Why come to college if you don't attend all the classes? You have to make up your mind what's important," she said at her interview in a no-nonsense tone. "I'm giving up a full-time job to do this course and nothing's going to get in the way."

Halfway through the year, Jenny has had to change her stance. Financial problems meant she spent all of the lead-up to Christmas working part-time in a supermarket and what with the training they insisted on, plus long stints at the checkout, she found herself struggling to meet deadlines and cutting classes.

"Look on the bright side," she said grimly. "I'm developing huge muscles in my arms lifting all those six-packs."

Susie has made some tough decisions, too. She has been struggling with her Communication 4 module since the beginning. Open registration means that it is possible for a student who cannot achieve at the top level to aim for a lower level 3. I discussed this with her when it became apparent that a level 4 would give her a mountain to climb in 24 weeks. She was adamant she had to get Com 4 because her course leader insisted on it for progression to an advanced course.

It is a well known rock and a hard place for communication lecturers, and we often see students under tremendous pressure. College policy means that we must allow a student as many attempts to achieve as college resources allow. No one wants to see a student go through repeated failure, however, and most students accept advice about levels. Susie, however, was having none of it. She was determined. But the first week back it was obvious she had had a long think during the holidays. She was going to settle for level 3. "That's still quite good, isn't it?" she asked.

It is always a poignant moment when students have to revise their ambitions, to cut their coat according to their cloth and whatever other well known sayings we use to disguise the whiff of compromise. There is nothing like a bit of January drizzle to encourage you to look at your long-term plans and decide that though you still want to be a film director, the job with BT would probably do very nicely meantime.

As my students settle down to complete their courses the atmosphere has changed. They are, for the most part, focused, determined and stripped of illusions. I find myself rebelling against this harsh dose of reality and wishing there was some kind of deus ex machina solution for those whose dreams have been dented. As Susie struggles through her restricted response questions on Monday morning, perhaps there will be a puff of smoke and an external verifier dressed in a white tutu with gossamer wings will gently chide her for lack of faith and make her dreams come true.

"You shall achieve level 4," she will say as she sprinkles fairy dust over Susie's prose. But then it's so hard to get a pantomime fairy just now. Most of them have folded away their wands and gone back to the day job.

The best students, however, seem to create their own magic. Natalya-Jane was a summer school student from a few years back. I met her again as she zapped my trolley-load of groceries. She loved the summer school and had begun a full-time beauty therapy course at college, having plans to open up her own salon. Preferably in America. Or she would consider being a make-up artist working on film sets. As exotic as her name, Natalya-Jane knew she wasn't destined for mediocrity.

But she didn't complete her college course because life somehow got in the way. Though at first she had seen her supermarket job as a stopgap she was doing well and heading for the top. "I've been told I'm management material," she confided. "I'm only doing checkout to help one of the girls out. Then again, I could go back to college."

She told me about her boyfriend, and the puppy she had got for Christmas and bubbled over with enthusiasm for a world brimming with prospects. Reality? It depends on how you look at it.

* Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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