Success from adult learner to Academic Lead and Trustee

Thomas Empson was an adult learner and now works for London South Bank University as Academic Lead and Marketing Manager on a European Social Funded project called Dagile. The social impact project aims to up-skill Londoners for the digital economy through training in leadership and digital skills so they are better equipped for the changing jobs market. Thomas is also a Trustee for the homeless charity Emmaus Colchester. Thomas shares his story as an adult learner to inspire others.

“I went to school in Tiptree, Essex and didn’t do too badly in my GCSEs, but failed all of my A-levels. This was, in part, due to being dyslexic, which went undiagnosed until I was 35 so I didn’t receive the additional support I should have in school. Without A levels, my options were limited. I started work and saved up enough money to go backpacking around Australia for 10 weeks. On this trip I had an epiphany. My friends who had gone to University to study graphic design would call me for advice and feedback on their projects, which I enjoyed. I realised that creativity was a strength for me and also valued by others, making it a good potential direction for my career. 

I started a BTEC in Fine Art at Colchester Institute to follow in the footsteps of my graphic designer friends, but left wanting to be a fashion designer. My portfolio of work secured me a conditional offer with the very prestigious Central Saint Martins (CSM), part of the University of the Arts London. Suddenly, I was the first in my family to get into university, and I hadn’t just got into any old university, I had got into THE university to study fashion, studying a course that had alumni like Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen!  

At university, I honed my skills as a designer and marketeer, and built a strong network of peers who would become colleagues and co-creators. I learnt how to turn my ideas and concepts into tangible outputs – from clothes designs to brand concepts and marketing strategies. 

Being an adult learner, starting university at the grand age of 23, meant I approached my studies with a different attitude. I knew the value of money, and what it was costing me to study. I worked part-time in a pub during term-times to make ends meet and worked three jobs over the summer holidays.  

In 2015, I wanted to change my career and completed an MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London. At this point I was 35, so definitely felt like a proper ‘adult learner’. It was at Goldsmiths that I was finally diagnosed as dyslexic and I was able to access the support and assistive technology that I needed to help me excel.  

Today, 19 years after I first went to university, I have 15 years’ experience of lecturing across Marketing, Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability subjects. I’ve delivered several social impact projects for funders, including the Big Lottery Fund, the Department for Education and the European Social Fund. I’ve also created a portfolio of collaborations between higher education institutions and leading high street fashion brands.  

I believe all of these opportunities stemmed from what I learnt at university, and even more so from the networks and contacts that university allows you to build. As an adult learner I understood the value of money and had developed resilience and determination. I had spent time growing my passion for my chosen subject area too and all of these were of real benefit during my studies. 

To anyone considering studying later in life, I would strongly advise future mapping. Consider what you are passionate about and motivated by, what careers you would like to pursue, and what your goals are, including your ideal work-life balance. Then it’s a case of finding the right course to nurture your skills, the right academic team to teach you about your chosen industry and the right institution with the industry contacts that can help you connect and network your way to your dream job! 

Feel free to connect with me and explore my career journey further on “

< Back to news

"'At university, I honed my skills as a designer and marketeer, and built a strong network of peers who would become colleagues and co-creators.'"