Student Stories

Software and Electronic Engineering - Ricky Small

How finding his calling gave Ricky a boost


'It's given me such a boost knowing that I've been able to succeed and finish something.' When Ricky Small left school after doing his Junior Certificate he wasn't sure what to do with himself, but he knew he wanted to work with computers in one form or another.  He's tried numerous courses in numerous fields, but nothing really held his attention. That was until he decided to fully commit to college education and now at the age of 34 he is in his fourth year at GMIT, where he is hoping to get a first class honours in Software and Electronic Engineering.


Ricky, who lives in Tubbercurry now, attended Colaiste Muire in Ballymote, and left school at the age of 16. Computers were always his passion. Subjects in school didn't really appeal to him, but that's not to say he wasn't interested in learning or pursuing a career in something. "When I was younger I was mad into computers.," Ricky told The Sligo Champion. "We lived in Sligo and then moved to England and there was a fella living across the road who worked for Microsoft. When they would be upgrading systems some of the staff would get to take home the older computers, ones that still wouldn't have been available to the public. I used to mess around with them.


"I was always interested in computers from a very young age. The reason I lost interest in school was because there was no schools teaching computers. I wasn't into classes like history and geography, whereas I like technology and those sort of classes." So he left school and didn't know where he was going or what to do. Because he wasn't yet 18, there were no courses available for him. But eventually, he found somewhere. "My brother had gone to YouthReach in Ballaghderreen so I went down that route because I heard that they did some computers. "I was able to do my Leaving Cert Applied there and passed. I didn't know what to do after that because I still wasn't old enough for the FAS courses so I went to Fermanagh College to do cheffing through culinary arts." Fermanagh College at the time were part of a cross-border programme that brought together students from both the North of Ireland and the Republic.


It was a course that Ricky enjoyed, and that allowed him to gain valuable experience. "That included going over to Canada so I went over to Canada and was working in the Hilton Hotel and a couple of other places. That was for three months. "When I came back I still didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do cheffing but I was still going back to computers."


He was still at a loss as to what he wanted to do career wise, and so a spell in England followed. "My brother was working in England as an electrician with Harrods, he suggested I go over so I did and worked in Harrods for a few years and I still kept going back towards computers. When I came back to Ireland I went to GTI in Galway to do video and media production because I was interested in music and that involved computers so I thought that might suit me. But still, I had no interest so I left." Ricky was growing frustrated at the fact that he couldn't find his calling, and having tried his hand at so many, he still couldn't find something suitable. "I didn't finish any of the courses I was doing except the cheffing, I would always leave half way through. "A few years went by and everyone was getting older and I have a son and he was getting bigger so I knew I had to do something because I was just wasting my time."


When he watched two of his brothers go to IT Sligo, and saw how quickly the academic year goes by, he realised that it was time to take the plunge and do something he would like. "I applied to GMIT to do an electronic engineering course because that sounded like something I would like, it was the course for me. I went for an interview as a mature student, so I knew I wouldn't have to worry about my leaving cert. When I went for the assessment there they were saying 'your maths is going to make you fall behind and you're going to have a hard time with the course' so they recommended I do an Access course which is run by NUIG and GMIT together.


"It's for mature students to get them back into education and how to do assignments and projects and writing skills. So if you pass that you automatically get your place in NUIG." From there Ricky got his place in GMIT in Software and Electronic Engineering, this time, it felt right. He was enjoying the course so much that he took on other responsibilities while in college. "I became the class rep in first year and I'm also the head rep of all the electronic engineers in the college. I was a pass leader which helps all the first years when they come in because I had gone through it so I thought I might be able to help. "I became a smart consent leader as well which is basically teaching students the rights and wrongs and what no means and what yes means so I've done all that stuff. What really kept me going was projects in second year so we had to design devices something that would work over the internet. I was shocked with myself when I did so well and that kept me going into third year.


"For third year I worked hard because I wanted to go into Jaguar Land Rover in Shannon because they opened a software place and they did hardware for all their cars so last January I started there in the department where they work on the hardware and software for autonomous vehicles but then Covid came along so all the work placements were cut short. That was a bit disappointing." Ricky has since graduated, and he is now doing the add-on to fourth year to make his degree an honours one. He also earned the Academic Achievement Award. Having spent years trying to find something suitable, Ricky is thankful that he took the chance and committed to a full time degree. "It was very hard to drive myself to start looking at courses. You know you don't have any certificates and everyone keeps telling you that you have to do something with yourself. I think the Access course at NUIG opened my mind a bit to think about what courses I wanted to do. "That course I was thinking 'maybe I'll do something else' but I knew I'd go back to electronics."


Now at the age of 34, Ricky has found a new lease of life and a newfound confidence within himself having found something he loves and is good at. "It's not easy (to go back to college) but I was able to look at it like, 'in five years time I will have all this out of the way and I'll be able to do everything I've wanted to do'. "The Access course was a serious help,teaching you how to study properly, how to take notes properly, even just hoe to present assignments." Financially, returning to education is not possible for everyone particularly for mature students who may have children, but Ricky says GMIT were extremely helpful when it came to finances.


"GMIT is really good with funding for disadvantaged students or mature students. They have programs in place where they give you funding. "I'm just after getting a laptop from them to work from home. I wouldn't be able to afford it so they have laptop schemes. They help you with applications and to get any money you can. They're really helpful." He opted not to work while studying, as he feels he wouldn't have been able to give it 100% if he was also trying to find time to fit in work. But he knows that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to do that. "When I focus on something I get straight into it, and any spare time I have I'm working on that. There's lots of mature students in the college who are working. Some people do manage it. Younger people might have a better shot at it because they're just out of education. For mature students it might be a bit harder and you have your life going on around you. Some people have kids, so they have to look after them and put that time aside. You do find the balance. Once it's there you see the rewards."


Ricky says his return to college and his subsequent achievements has given him a massive confidence boost. "I knew I could do these things but when I had no papers it was no good saying I could do stuff if I can't get a job doing it. Years ago when I was in school you might have got a job through someone, but now with things interview based, especially in software it would be harder. It's given me such a boost just knowing that I've been able to succeed and finish something. Starting something and being able to finish it was my problem, so now I know I can do it." And while some years ago he would have been looking at leaving Sligo for work, nowadays he can't think of anywhere better to work, particularly with the possibility of more jobs in his field coming up in the near future. "In Sligo even they have the new software hub being built, so I'd like to be able to find a job in Sligo. My son's other side of the family is in Sligo, my mother is in Sligo, it wouldn't have been my first thought when I was younger. "But when you get older you come back to your home. There's fast internet connection there now too."


(Article published November 28 2020 by Jessica Farry in the Sligo Champion)