Which Way 99: student file: mature outlook

when Janet Bick went back to college as a mature student, she soon discovered that her age was a great asset

When I left school in 1967 to start training as a nurse,little did I think that some 30-odd years later I would be studying for a completely unrelated degree. But here I am, pushing 50 and having just completed the first four modules of a BA Hons in English Studies at Bath Spa University College. I am a part-time student as I also run a busy village Post Office, having left nursing six years ago.

Making the decision

Opting to go back into education as a mature student feels like a pretty momentous decision when you are past the average student age. There are so many hopes and fears wrapped up in the whole thing, and if you weren't in higher education the first time round fear of the unknown is a major part of this. However, the fact that the institutions themselves see returning to college as a perfectly normal and straightforward activity has a wonderfully calming effect. The other side of this coin is that your unfamiliarity with the process, coupled with the absence of a knowledgeable and supportive school careers officer mean that you don't even know what you don't know, so you can't ask!

The college admissions office will have a member of staff whose role is that of Co-ordinator for mature students, and it is this person who will be an important anchor throughout your college life. Their name and contact number should be etched on your brain right from the word go. Get to see them or at least speak on the phone as early as possible and don't be afraid to put your cards on the table from the beginning: if you want them to assume that you have zero knowledge about college life, say so. Another source of support in the pre-term days is other people who have been involved as adult learners in any capacity. It may come as a surprise to discover that you are not a freak and that many of your friends and acquaintances have returned to a formal learning environment through work requirements or in pursuit of an interest. There are also self-help study books which are targeted at the mature student, with practical tips about how to approach seminars, essays, exams and private study. It might be appropriate if they carried a warning on the cover: "WARNING, reading this book may become displacement activity for real study." There will be no exam questions based on its contents, so you still need to read the set texts!

As the start of the academic year approaches there will be a widespread epidemic of cold feet. What seemed like a really exciting and liberating idea around new year now seems like lunacy. You will suddenly decide that your life was reasonably comfortable before - if a little boring. You'll remember that your stress levels were pretty manageable and begin to realise that predictability was not such a bad thing after all. You look in the mirror and see abject fear in the tension of your jaw. What are you frightened of, and why are you doing this are two questions you're bound to ask. The answer to the second question was established before you applied for your place, and it is helpful to go back over those thought processes now to reinforce your determination. As to what you are frightened of, perhaps it is simply summed up as making a fool of yourself. How will it feel to be amongst other students who have come fresh from sixth form so will be more alert and on form than you, and yet may be younger than your own offspring? Will they laugh at you or worse, ignore you ? What should you wear so as not to look too different but avoiding trying to be the oldest swinger in town?

My experience has taught me that there is no stigma in being older on the campus. The younger students seem as happy to work with me in seminar groups and presentations as with their peers. There is no sense of "us and them" between mature and younger students, and there have been times when they seem to have felt a positive benefit in having someone a little older around. It is perhaps sometimes easier to ask a question of a fellow- student than a tutor, and this has worked for me in both directions.

Our greater store of life experiences is a useful resource for the younger students to tap into, and their recent education experience is a potentially great help to us. So grasp the challenge by the scruff of the neck, and ENJOY.

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