The Perils and Promises of Being a Mature Student

Editor’s Note: This blog has been re-posted by kind permission of Robin Trenbath; for more from Robin you can follow his blog here and read his twitter feed @rjtrenbath

Many mature students have had unusual relationships with education – and I am certainly one of them. When I left school at 16 I gleefully burned my work in a ritual Viking funeral and thanked the stars that I would never again have to take another test. I had no intention of ever going back. Instead, I travelled to many different places, and had at least a dozen esoteric and mundane jobs. Now, 27 years old and in final year of a BA (Hons) Politics and Modern History at the University of Manchester, I find myself at a natural point of reflection. How did I get here? Where am I going? Would I have done anything differently? For other, older people thinking about re-entering education, I hope my experience will inform and encourage you.

When in my early twenties I began to feel the nagging itch of wanting to be challenged intellectually, I applied to college to take an access course. For better or worse I was rejected, and decided to teach myself. I looked up different A Level providers and courses and, after first organising my candidacy as an independent student with AQA, I rang around local schools to find one that would let me sit exams with them. Finally, still wanting some guidance, I wandered around the University of York campus, knocking on doors until I found doctoral students willing and able (or desperate enough to say anything to get me to leave!) to tutor me for an hour a week.

I was lucky. The tutors I found believed in me, and gave generously of their time to listen to my enthusiastic but naïve ramblings on their subjects. Studying during the day, I worked nights in a local elderly nursing home (where I would stash textbooks to read in quiet moments). When it came to my first exams, I was so nervous that I spent entire days revising at my desk, often sleeping exhausted beneath it. But, after getting good marks, I grew a little in confidence and carried on. A year and a half later I finished with A*ABB in Politics, History, Economics and Law and was offered a place to study at the University of Manchester.

University brought with it a whole new set of challenges. By now in my mid-twenties, the age at which most students had finished and moved on into their careers, I was keenly aware how far ahead of my cohort I was in terms of age and experience, and how far behind them I was in terms of academic ability and career prospects. Having not stepped foot in a classroom for eight years, it was a different world, and the unconventionality of my education made me feel like an imposter. When it came to tutorials, I had very little confidence in my abilities, and would blush furiously if prompted for an opinion. The end result was that I walked around the campus looking like an insider but feeling very much like an outsider.

I have to confess that feeling like an outsider is something I was never made to feel, but imposed on myself in order to make meaningful the years before coming to university, and something I consciously developed in order to seem different and interesting. I would introduce myself that way, and get off the bus two stops before the University because I didn’t want strangers to think I was a student, or students to think I was one of them. I intentionally went out of my way to find a job and a place to live in the wider community, and avoided like the plague parties or clubs, or being involved in anything where I would have to affect membership of a group I didn’t feel ready to belong to. Over time, the weakness of this strategy showed and I began to feel the loneliness of alienating myself from those with whom I spent the majority of my day.

Now in my late-twenties, and coming to the end of my degree, some things have changed and some have remained the same. I still feel something like an outsider, and still blush furiously in tutorials. But now I’m finding the value of bridging the gaps between myself and other students, rather than relying on those gaps for creating a (self-destructive) sense of self. I now have classmates that have become friends, and in tutorials I’m practicing speaking up because I understand that it isn’t me that is on the line but the ideas under discussion. I still occasionally get off the bus a stop early, but now I’m much more at peace with myself and my surroundings, and I’ve come to recognise that a degree is not the end of my intellectual journey but the beginning of it. I hope to start postgraduate study next year.

For me, as for a lot of mature students, coming to university was not inevitable. I did not move smoothly from school to college to university. Sometimes I had to fight to exist as a thinking person, and overcome the worse demons of my nature that told me I’m not good enough and should quit. No course of study is a walk in the park, and I have had to deal with mine while managing the depression which began when I was a teenager, worsened infinitely by the isolation I created for myself. For prospective mature students, the potential challenges of re-entering education appear largely practical (‘What will I do for money?’, ‘Will I have enough time?’, ‘What about my other commitments?’). Those questions are answered elsewhere by others better suited to answering them, but the impact on one’s sense of identity – and, by extension, mental health – is rarely considered.

If I could give advice to those prospective mature students it would be this: do it, absolutely and unequivocally, but put in the effort to find a place that suits you, somewhere between maintaining your sense of identity and engaging with others. Yes, you will probably feel like the odd one out when you walk into a lecture theatre, but don’t hold on to that sense of difference at the expense of growing in that environment. Also, never underestimate the kindness and generosity of students or staff. At the University of Manchester, everyone I’ve spoken to has taken the time to understand and support me, whether that has meant kind words or deadline extensions, and I am very grateful for that. Ask, and I promise you, you’ll receive.

In the end, coming to university has been one of the most important and worthwhile decisions of my life. Quite apart from better job prospects, I can now (more or less confidently; more or less intelligently) discuss the world around me – something I could not do before; something that, in the context of political, economic and cultural change, is as essential as breathing. I may have arrived at university as a mature student, but – emotionally and intellectually – I grew up here. My future begins here. I would recommend it to everyone.


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