Being a mature student is strange, and not because it’s about the only time anyone would ever call me mature. There is this contrast between mature students and “fresh” students that is somehow contradictory. Mature students have more life experience, often know a fair bit about their subject before coming to university, and have a motivation and drive that comes from being determined to study that subject above all others despite the sacrifices that have had to be made. And that really is a big difference between the two types of students – most mature student have been out living in the world, often earning money, generally living life. It takes a lot of courage and determination to disrupt that settled routine and dive headfirst into what can feel like a Russian-roulette gamble.
On the other side, younger students are usually much more up to date with their learning skills, are more able to absorb information, and have the benefit of being fresh out of college with relevant learnings fresh on their minds. For example, I never did psychology at A-level (or it’s equivalent that I did abroad). It was simply never offered where I went to college. And even if I had done it, it is very unlikely that almost ten years later I would be able to remember anything. I can recall only very little from the subjects I did do. It particularly grates at me when other students say things like “we don’t need to do this, we did it at A-level” or “oh I’ve done this so much I know it back to front!” I have done quite a lot of reading about psychology long before I applied to university but very little of it has proven relevant to my course so far (damn the lack of coverage of Carl Jung!!)
Mature students, as a sweeping generalisation, tend to engage with their learning more actively. Maybe it’s the extra motivation, or maybe it’s the financial awareness that we have paid (or will pay for many years) for a service, or maybe again its just down to not feeling intimidated by lecturers – other adults like us – but mature students do seem to seek out extra support and tuition and be more active in lectures by calling out and asking questions.
One other major potential difference between mature students and younger students is the party scene. There is a lot of partying at university, usually a lot of alcohol, and a lot of silliness and fun to be had. Many mature students have either “outgrown” this kind of socialising (in my case, as I suspect many others, its more that I can’t keep than I don’t want to), or they have demands on their life that preclude such frivolity, such as children, work, a long term relationship with someone not in the university, or a WoW account. However I am a firm believer in “you are only as old as you let yourself be” and personally I have no problem (my normal social anxieties aside) socialising with people ten years my younger. Hell, half of them are still more mature than me! And besides, these are my friends and will be for many decades after we graduate!
Oh yeah, mature student do get some knocking from the others. Mostly jokes about age, such as how I was around when Jesus died and how I laid the first brick of the Berlin wall. Sometimes though someone has a grumble about “those mature students always asking questions in lectures”.
My counter to this is simple. Why isn’t EVERYONE asking questions?? We are here to learn, and we are paying a bloody fortune for it, so you can be damned sure I’m going to do everything in on power to make the most of the opportunities and ensure I understand the material.
Another experience particular to mature students is the slightly awkward position it puts you in with relation to lecturers. It was a long time since I spoke to anyone with the line on deference a young student would reserve for a teacher or lectures. At work I was fairly chummy with my managers (and never afraid to speak my mind). So standing in front of someone who I would normally treat as an equal but social position dictates I should treat as a superior…well that was a bit weird. And not just because I have always had a problem treating my superiors as such (can anyone say “authority issues”?) Considering I’m already sure some of the lecturers are barely my elder, I can’t imagine how strange this would be for anyone much older than myself! But I had a double issue too – I had met and made friends with some of the lecturers before even applying to the university!
I had toyed with the idea of returning to higher education for some time, fuelled by an increasing disgust with the job I was working in. But it wasn’t until I saw one of my best friends (whom I was renting a room from) complete his first year as a mature student that I decided I really wanted to do it. I saw how passionate he was about his course, how much he was enjoying it, how rewarding it was for him, and I simply thought to myself: I want that. After years of working in a company that in the last couple of years had become unbearably soul-crushing higher education shone like a beacon of hope and a promise of something better.
I was earning a £32k salary at the time, paying my rent and had just finished off paying a lot of debts (including student loans from my first attempt at university). The prospect of giving up the freedom and comfort that I had worked so hard to earn and plunge into the dark unknown was terrifying. But that beacon shone brighter every day, so after a vacation which gave me time away from work to think clearly, I started the ball rolling. In a matter of weeks I had filled out my UCAS application, written a personal statement, and acquired references. I picked my five university choices on a simple basis: proximity to London coupled with the highest ratings on the national leader boards for my chosen course – Psychology. Even the fact that I did International Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels, since I was abroad at the time, didn’t pose any problem, and I eventually got my acceptance notification to Brunel University. Only then did I tell anyone at work what I was doing, and with great satisfaction and a hint of relief I handed in my notice. It felt like I had been thrown a lifesaver, rescued from a life and career that I had long since realised I had no love for.
I was lucky too, in that everyone around me supported me and encouraged me. I do sometimes speak to people who have had less that supportive people around them.
“Don’t bother, its a waste of time”
“Why would you do it?”
“What’s wrong with your life as it is?”
“University is for kids, teenagers, not for someone like you”
To that last one I have this to say: the proportion of mature students is on the rise and already many universities have sizeable mature student populations. There is absolutely no reason to exclude yourself from university because of your age. We have one student at Brunel who is in his eighties, and he is a total legend. I don’t know quite how we as a society have entrenched ourselves in this idea that no one can or should learn anything new after they hit their twenties, but I find it utterly ridiculous and completely demeaning of our potential.
So do I have any advice for anyone considering becoming a mature student?
Do it. Just do it.
Not for one second have I regretted my return to higher education. The only thing I regret is hesitating so long!