Sarah Cook working from home and looking after her 4 Children, 3 of whom are triplets. 12/10/16 . Copyright Photo Tom Pilston.
Sarah Cook: ‘The dean made a great point that families and close friends are essential to our achievement’ © Tom Pilston

Sarah Cook is global marketing director at Oxford University Press. She graduated with an executive MBA from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, receiving the dean’s award for outstanding academic achievement.

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I was a little shell-shocked when I walked back into my corporate finance class that day: I knew I would have to study while pregnant, but I had just found out it was triplets. My husband and I were elated but nervous — I was a few months into my two-year executive MBA.

My school, Oxford Saïd, offered to postpone my graduation by a year, but I thought, “You know what? I love my classmates and working with them, so I just want to see this through.” I had signed up to the course to build cross-cultural relations with people and companies, visit industries worldwide and apply this to my role as global marketing director at Oxford University Press — and I did not want to delay it.

I went in with my eyes open, but with a five-month-old daughter and a full-time job, going back to school was challenging. This was before I knew Elizabeth, Reid and Benjamin were on their way.

I decided to front-load my electives once we got the news, so by the time the babies arrived, the bulk of the work was done. I also chose modules that required less travel. But I still had to write around 25 assessed pieces of coursework and sit three exams in corporate finance, accounting and microeconomics.

I felt lucky to win the dean’s award for outstanding academic achievement at our graduation in September. The school took good care of me, academically but also through the kindness of individual staff. But the dean made a great point in his speech: families and close friends are essential to our achievement.

I was lucky to have an incredible personal network, including my husband and our parents. They were there to cheer me on and help me find time to study. My coursemates were also encouraging. At first they were like, “Oh my God, triplets, that’s crazy, how are you going to do this?” But EMBA students are usually at an age where they have families. Indeed, some of my classmates also had babies during the course.

Accommodations had to be made. I was so heavily pregnant during an exam that I couldn’t even sit at the normal desks. My college set me up in a separate room where I could stretch my legs. But I received no special treatment for the assignments I had to do — and rightly so.

Finding time to study was challenging. During the pregnancy I studied every day and found it distracted me from the discomfort I was in. Once the babies were born, I might have wanted to relax one evening, but it wasn’t going to happen. Every day, there was a golden period between 7pm and 9pm, when the babies had gone to bed, where I would just crack open the books. I think I benefited from the sense of discipline classical dancing taught me from a young age.

I am back to full-time work after my maternity leave. I am keen to share with the team at OUP what I learnt in the strategy and innovation and digital marketing classes, think about how we can develop new tools and services and reach new customers. In the longer term, I want to explore the intersection between education and technology. A project I developed for my social innovation class, which looks at how to get more girls into computer science in the UK, particularly in higher education, is something I am working on now.

It is tough to come back to work with four very young children. It feels like we’re still scrambling every morning, but it is just about figuring out the night before what the coming day will be like.

I am sad that the course is over, but quite honestly, I am looking forward to simple things: catching up with friends and movies, and reading for pleasure.

What would I say to someone in a situation similar to the one I was in? Apart from a strong sense of focus, the support of close ones and a desire to learn, it is essential to maintain the self-belief that you can do it. It seems insurmountable at times, but having this conviction is extremely important for anyone considering embarking on a similar programme.

As told to Laura Gardner

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