News and Views

‘I’ve been given a second shot at life’

1 Aug 2018

Frank Dowling, a third-year Architecture student at the brand-new School of Architecture on Douglas Street, Cork City, on his experience of returning to UCC as a mature student. Photos: Mike McSweeney/ Provision. 

The real catalyst in propelling me towards going back to education and studying architecture was due to a life-changing experience, which in turn, brought me to a point in the run-up to the May Bank Holiday Weekend, in 2016. On that Friday, I had my last visit from the Marymount Hospice Home Care Team, who most unusually, according to themselves, officially discharged me from their care there and then; apparently it doesn’t happen that often. Previously, I had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2015 and given just about 10 months to live.

My wife Gail and I discussed 'what next?' and she asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, not knowing how long I would last! So why not make the best of the time that’s left, and do something you’d enjoy? The choices under consideration were simply - go back into the world of work or go for a complete change … it all happened very quickly. A quick email to Gary Mulcahy at the Mature Students Office (MSO) and a follow up call with Gary got the ball rolling same day! The decision was entirely in favour of Architecture.

My oncologist was also incredibly supportive, even most insistent that I get back to work or get going on some more gainful, purposeful occupation to engage my brain and facilitate the recovery process that had just started and needed a positive frame of mind to enable the recovery to continue uninterrupted. In fact, he personally wrote to the CAO in support of my late application, while my wife also played a big part in engineering a successful outcome - as I hadn’t gone through the normal channels, that prospective undergraduates would ordinarily do in the early new year. I wanted to go full-time and was determined not to be hanging around for an entire year. Anyway, I got lucky, and all the efforts paid off, resulting in the CAO accepting me as an Exceptional Late Applicant, and the gates of UCC opened wide for me, while the School of Architecture were incredibly supportive all the way.

Frank Dowling, Architecture Student


Two years in and no regrets, I love my course, and it’s given me a new lease of life – it challenges me every day – yes, it was a pragmatic decision – partly with the purpose of re-engaging with life but mostly for the love of architecture.

Going back to education isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for me, as I’ve discovered. Sure, I’m the oldest student in the School of Architecture, and in fact, there’s only one lecturer who can claim to be somewhat older. For the most part, my peers are now 20, 21-year-olds, my lecturers are mostly 30s, 40s, 50s – a bit strange for all of them at first, however, after the first few weeks we all got used to each other and got on with learning as the projects cascaded on to our desks each week. It’s a heavy work rate for the full academic year and beyond. In fact, I’d say it’s more of a vocation than a career choice.

For me, it’s a second bite of the cherry – I’ve been given a second shot at life, and I intend using every minute of it, every day, to the best of my ability – and live it to the full – and now three years on from my diagnosis, I’m still up for life’s challenges.

Happily, I topped off my second year by winning a prestigious National Award, for our college project in Semester 2, in the Built Environment Category of the NDA Universal Grand Design Challenge, competing against all other Third Level Architectural Students and Post Grads.

The course itself requires a considerable level of commitment, it’s not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, it does need the extra effort of nights and weekends during term time – it’s full on! As a full-time student, you do have to make concessions with your time and lifestyle – while my friends are off playing golf, cycling, going on several holidays and global travel, I’m hitting the books. The requirement to stay on top of a multiplicity of projects throughout the academic year requires a lot of dedication, to meet all the deadlines and stay with the programme, no matter what.

I had a few health issues during the past two years and attended regular, scheduled treatments every second Friday at the Bons Secours Hospital, but then resumed college in the afternoons. The College was and continues to be extremely accommodating in that respect – scheduled medical appointments, unexpected health issues - by providing lectures on iPhone, and notes - I also registered with the DSS (Disability Support Service at UCC – under Significant Long-Term Illness, excellent advice), whom I found to be extremely supportive, as I had to communicate with them on a few occasions.

On a different but related matter, my son Colin, a serving Garda and a Mature Student, will start his final Year BCL at UCC, in September. In fact, three of us were Mature Students, all starting together - my daughter Kerrie, a qualified engineer, decided on a career change and headed off to do Veterinary Medicine in Budapest.

So now the discussions at home are around exams and all that ‘studenty stuff’, like lectures and so on.

I’m really looking forward to commencing Year 3 of my Architecture Degree Course this coming September, and more especially, as we have just relocated to our brand new, purpose-built School of Architecture on Douglas Street, adjoining the Nano Nagle Centre, in the heart of Cork City.

My interest in architecture goes back a very long way, partly because of previous connections and interactions with professional architects during my lifelong career as a design consultant. I’ve worked on property marketing and branding for large-scale development projects, so it was always an area I wanted to know more about.

For now, I’m entirely focused on completing out my degree in the next two years and getting the best grades I can possibly achieve. At that point, I’ll look at the extra year for a Master's - and health-permitting, together with other matters…will seriously consider it. 

Stay tuned to UCC's social media channels next week for our campaign focused on the personal stories of some of UCC's mature students and graduates.  

For more on this story contact:

Lynne Nolan, Media & PR Officer, UCC: 087 210 1119 or

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