The flexibility of an online degree: balancing work and education with UCEM

Posted on: 15 September, 2023

Ruth Kyamuwendo is an assistant quantity surveyor, studying part-time at UCEM while pursuing her career in construction. An international student working towards her master’s degree, she chose online learning as a way to create a balance between full-time employment and university.

We caught up with Ruth to discover why she chose this route, to find out about her challenges and triumphs, and to explore what it means to her to be able to work and study at the same time.

Hi Ruth, tell us a little bit about your background before coming to UCEM

Well, I’d already completed my bachelor’s degree in construction management, studying full-time on campus at Makerere University here in Uganda.

I graduated in 2021 and was lucky enough to secure a position with a firm almost straight away. The company provides consultancy and project management services for steel building construction, and it was exactly the type of work that I wanted to be involved in.

My boss is a quantity surveyor, and he inspired me to follow the same route. I love that as a quantity surveyor, you get involved at every stage of a project, controlling costs, and managing timelines, but also making sure that buildings meet legal and quality standards. Anyway, to really move forward, I felt that I needed to have better educational foundations in that area. That’s when I started thinking about doing a master’s degree in quantity surveying.

What were the reasons behind you choosing to study and work at the same time?

The problem was that I couldn’t afford to pay for a master’s degree without having a regular income. I just didn’t have the money for the tuition fees. Studying full-time has its appeal, but I needed to find a way to earn, as well as learn. Plus, as I’d already secured a permanent position at a great firm, online learning seemed like the natural next step.

I thought that by combining my studies with my work, I could fast-track my career. I wanted to be able to graduate with both qualifications and experience to increase future opportunities. I did my research into online universities, and UCEM came out on top.

Learn more: Study fee options at UCEM – making the right choice for you

How did you find the challenge of balancing work and study?

Studying and working at the same time took me by surprise at first. I needed a little time to adjust. I was struggling a bit, and I felt nervous, but both UCEM and my company were really supportive.

I decided to take some time off work to get my bearings. It didn’t actually take long before I was in my stride and able to balance my work and study commitments. The flexibility of online learning means that I can study on the weekend, or grab a few hours here and there during the week as needed.

Recently my company has given me a day release, which has made things a lot easier. They have been so supportive, though it’s not always possible every week, due to client or site meetings. One of my colleagues left at one point, too, and that added to my workload temporarily. But the great thing about studying with UCEM is that I was able to drop down to one module rather than doing two at once.  My work and study deadlines would sometimes clash, and I was able to speak to the academic support tutor to find a solution together.

The academic pressure only comes when I don’t balance my time properly, and I’ve been able to do that on most occasions.

What have been some of your highlights so far?

I think the most exciting part has been when my university studies and my work align.

For example, this semester I was studying a procurement module at the same time that I was assisting with a similar project at work. Everything just clicked. My university studies helped me build the groundwork I needed for my job, giving me direct real-world experience of what I was studying to use in my assignment. As a result, everything just flowed so much easier.

Also, the camaraderie I have with other students is brilliant. I mainly use the WhatsApp group to keep in touch, and it’s really important for me to have that social support. I know that there are others facing the same challenges and enjoying the same successes as me. We help each other out, and we celebrate together.

How do you think studying and working will alter your prospects in the future?

Studying for my master’s degree full-time wasn’t an option. Working in a full-time job and learning alongside it is the only way I can pay for my tuition. UCEM is providing me with that opportunity.

As well as helping me perform better in my current role, it’s also giving me the knowledge that I need for the next steps in my career. In Uganda, work experience is highly valued when evaluating candidates, so the on-the-job experience I’m getting will help my career prospects later on. At the same time, having my master’s degree will put me at an advantage and help me when I apply for more senior positions.

So, by being able to work and study at the same time, I feel like I’m fast-tracking my career. It isn’t an easy route to take by any means, but for me, it is the ideal path, and I’m sure all my hard work will pay off for many years to come.

Learn more: Built environment careers – top trends driving the construction sector during uncertain times

What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking a similar approach?

Don’t expect it to be effortless. It isn’t. It took me a little while to get the balance right, but I’m so glad I stuck at it. Once you find your rhythm everything starts to get easier. Also, rely on your support network. For me, that meant checking in with other students online and using the WhatsApp groups.

My program leader and the university support staff are amazing. I’d recommend adjusting how many modules you study at once, depending on your other commitments at the time. UCEM is unique in giving you the flexibility to find the right balance.

If you want to add a boost to your career, I don’t think there’s any better way of doing it. Weigh it all up, and if it feels right, go for it!

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