She left school with nothing at 15 and started work. Now 65, Ada Pagan has already passed almost 70 qualifications and feels ready for university. Raymond Ross reports
When Ada Pagan enrolled for two O-grade night classes in English and sociology at Stevenson College Edinburgh in 1975, neither she nor anyone at the college had any idea of the journey she was starting.
The term "lifelong learner" had not yet been coined, but if there is anyone who could put in a claim to be the country's first and foremost lifelong learner, it could well be Miss Pagan.
This year, at the age of 65, she will "graduate" from the college after 33 consecutive years of study and go to Queen Margaret University to complete an HND in business administration.
During her time at Stevenson, she has gained a total of six A-levels; 17 Highers; 11 O-grades; nine O-levels; 20 credits in business subjects; four certificates in public speaking; an HNC in business administration; and (this year) she will complete an HNC in languages and tourism.
She is simply a perennial student, you might think; someone who should get a real job; someone who should get a life. But not so.
In 1958, Miss Pagan left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications, and worked as a shop assistant for 14 years before becoming a social worker in 1972.
"I didn't have any academic qualifications, but I did have 12 years' experience doing voluntary work through the Congregational Church, and that's what earned me the job," Miss Pagan says.
"At the interview, they said they weren't interested in the academic side. They said they were interested in what was `inside'."
She hadn't liked school - James Clark Secondary in St Leonard's, Edinburgh - which was fitting her for clerical work. She was no good at maths (then), loathed shorthand, hated the big classes and was humiliated in front of 20 other pupils for being the only one to fail a class exam in shorthand - by one mark.
It was this humiliation, she says, that ruined school for her and held her back for so many years. But the learning bug had begun to bite, and in 1977 she left social work to attend Stevenson College full-time for two years, picking up five Highers and an O-grade in Latin.
For the following two years, while taking a few more O-grades, she was president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the college (standing unopposed for her second term of office), which involved working 8.30am to 8.30pm from Monday to Thursday.
"My SRC work had no political motivation to it. I just loved working with people, mature students from all walks of life. And I could put to good use the counselling skills I'd developed through social work," Miss Pagan says.
After this, she spent three years full-time at the Congregational Theological College in Edinburgh's west end to gain accreditation as a lay preacher (which she still is), while still studying at Stevenson for certificates in public speaking.
Then, after four years working with the Inland Revenue, Miss Pagan joined Customs and Excise. Her main task was building profiles of suspected smugglers and criminals, but working on "the intelligence side" at Leith Docks, she often had to search ships for illegal contraband ("dangerous work in more ways than one"). She was severely shocked when a colleague was murdered while on duty with her.
But she continued to work until her retirement five years ago. All the while, she was attending "the best college in Scotland", as Miss Pagan calls it.
With the encouragement of her employers, she took more Highers and completed courses in information technology and European studies, as well as improving her business studies skills.
"It was those first night classes back in the 1970s that inspired me. I was getting over hurdles a few at a time, thinking `Well, if I can do this, I'll try that', and I just kept going.
"But if anyone had said to me back then that I'd eventually be taking classes in subjects like philosophy and psychology, I just wouldn't have contemplated it," she says.
"I'd say to anyone in a similar situation to my own then: just take a step back and look at yourself, but don't let the past affect you. Look forward and be positive."
Last year, Miss Pagan, who has never married, was given a special award by Stevenson for her continuing contributions to the Student Guild (formerly the SRC), and she is still active in NUS Scotland, taking up the newly created post of mature student officer. She is now busy organising the first national conference for mature students in Scotland.
In September, she will embark on her university career, which she intends to extend beyond her first HND. "Doing Higher drama at Stevenson College instilled a love of theatre," she says. "I'm now a regular theatregoer, and would like to continue to study drama at Queen Margaret, hopefully acting."
What roles might she like to play? "Well, I'd fancy myself as Miss Marple, I'd love to try Lady Bracknell and, in my prime, Miss Jean Brodie," she laughs.
Why those three in particular? "They're all determined characters."