Café society makes university life sweet for circle of friends

From left: Gemima Fitzgerald, Alison Marshall and Nadja Woodason-Zeige

Midnight emails and chats over coffee and cake in their favourite university café saw a circle of friends through good times and bad while studying for their degrees.

University of Sussex psychology students Gemima Fitzgerald, 39, Alison Marshall, 48, and Nadja Woodason-Zeige, 44, who graduate today (Thursday 22 July at 3.30pm) met on their first day at Sussex when they got lost on campus and ended up in a café called the Bridge.

Meetings at the Bridge became a regular fixture for the three students and seven other friends they met. The group would get together regularly to share the highs and lows of life as mature students.

Nadja kept the hundreds of emails that passed between them all over three years and they are now editing these into a memento of their time at Sussex. The friends are also hoping to get the memoirs published as a book to help others who decide to study later in life.

Gemima, from Barcombe near Lewes, is a mother of two (an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old) who had previously worked in marketing. During her marriage, her self-confidence sapped away and one year into her course she got a divorce. Her studies and her new friendships got her through. Now, she has been awarded a First-Class degree and has the rare distinction of being offered a place to study for a doctorate in clinical psychology with the NHS, straight from her undergraduate degree. She says: "Coming to Sussex was a life-saver and life-changing. I'm excited about the next stage, but I'm definitely going to keep in touch with my friends. We've shared so much."

Alison, from Hove, has five children aged from nine to 19, one of whom is autistic. The experience of seeking treatment for her daughter encouraged Alison, like the others, to undertake an Access to Higher Education course before getting a place to study psychology at Sussex. During her course one of her sons had a serious accident playing rugby, but her friends were there to back her up.

Alison, who is now planning to do an education psychology doctorate, says: "I have very seriously enjoyed myself at university. This is a unique group of friends. We've shared laughs and tears, stuck together and given each other brilliant support. Our days really started when we left the university - housework, children, studying, then we would meet up online around midnight. And we always had a base at the Bridge."

Nadja's interest in psychology developed while dealing with her son's attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The mother-of-three (Jake, 18, who has ADHD; Josh, 16; and Angel, aged two) says: "It was frustrating being the mum. I wanted to be more involved - the person on the other side of the table. So I took an access course then came to Sussex.

But Nadja had to take a year out when she unexpectedly fell pregnant. Returning to Sussex after the birth of daughter Angel, she met the newly-arrived Alison and Gemima. Nadja is now going to London Met University to study for a doctorate in counselling psychology. She says: "We love the Bridge café because it offered us a place to get together and talk about whatever was troubling us. We forged a very special bond and I shall miss everyone."

Last updated: Thursday, 22 July 2010