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In Defence of Mature Students

It is harder to be a mature student than it is to be an undergraduate. (Gasps of outrage, anarchy erupts, sirens in the distance) Big statement, I know, but just bear with me!

Mature students are, from a Department of Education perspective, classed as being in their mid-twenties and beyond. “Well…so what?” (I hear nobody ask). Well, I’ll tell you.

Unfortunately, we have been raised in an age where (at risk of overgeneralisation) money apparently did grow on trees. People were building extensions for houses they could barely afford only a few years prior, work trips away (all expenses paid) were extended to include an employee’s whole family and parents forked out ridiculous money for their children’s school trips, which were no longer trips to any local farm but, say, extravagant ski trips. And no judgement here! Those specific examples I just provided clearly point to my own guilt in this.

But money just doesn’t suit us Irish. We treat it like (apologies for the stereotype) a hot potato, which scorches our hands as we dramatically shriek and throw it at a Starbucks before posting a picture of same on Instagram. (Also guilty. Again – no judgey).

Unfortunately, we Celtic Tiger cubs have been thrown into the wild now and the lifestyle we believed we would inherit from our parents was snatched away. However, the notions – the sheer notions – of financial stability from the Celtic Tiger period still remain. This is felt keenly at all ages (since our generation has, essentially, been given the bewildering task of bringing the wealth back) but for a mature student this burden is almost unbearably frustrating.

For we are expected to have already secured a successful career, built up vast savings, started a family, secured an eye-watering mortgage for a house and drive a somewhat decent car (but not a 171 reg for jaysus’ sake because that’s just showing off). It is often assumed that people return to college not to better themselves or avail of a once forgotten opportunity but as a sort of hobby to soften the boredom of a settled life. And this is probably just the opinions of, sometimes, their friends and family.

From a non-mature student perspective, we are expected to achieve higher marks because we are not of those who were forced to go to college unlike most just-out-of-leaving-cert students. We are supposed to be wholly committed, positively enthralled at the prospect of spending hours in a packed library that doesn’t permit you to bring even a cup of coffee with you (Come on, library. We are too old for such restrictions). We wouldn’t ever dare go out the night before a big presentation and deliver it the next morning, unsure if we have a soft hangover or are still slightly drunk (we absolutely do this). Yet go into any undergraduate lecture and take note of the reactions when a mature student asks a question. You all know exactly what I am referring to. There’s an almost universal roll of the eye and an inclination of the head, “tut, look at your wan, at it with the questions again”.

So bearing in mind these stereotypes of mature students, let’s just take a look at the reality.

Mature students come about through a variety of means; they took a career path that was expected of them at a time when opportunities were limited (pre-Celtic Tiger) but now want to fulfil their passion, they chose a career out of need (due to family commitments), they previously did not have the confidence or means to attend higher education or they simply have changed their minds about what they want to do in life.

Returning to college after a 3, 5, 10, 20 year gap (and so on) is no easy task. You arrive on campus to a swarm of infectiously excited new students but find you are not technically considered one of them. Neither are you considered a lecturer, though students may mistake you for one (it happens – and makes you question if, at 26, you honestly look that much older to an average undergraduate?). Meanwhile, often you still work forty hours a week (because the majority of mature students have to self-fund), have a family, reams of housework and adult tasks to do (like running to the post office at lunch to pay that fecking credit card that you rue signing up for). You have friends (we really do, it’s surprising I know) who it seems are all settled into adult life when you are just beginning again.

Regardless of motivation, it is a brave thing to go back to education and one that will reap its rewards eventually (or so I hear). However, it can also be a lonely journey of self-improvement. The vast amount of social events on campus can be daunting to attend and even when you build the courage to go, you remember you have your real responsibilities at home to take care of and thus slink away again.

Listen, there is a way to find a balance. And it is absolutely necessary that you do so.  So try to attend what you can, make friends with who you can and don’t be afraid of mixing with other non-mature students. It was the best decision I made during my postgraduate in all honesty, once you get past all the ‘granny’ references. And undergraduates, don’t be afraid to invite us mature students to events, nights out, study groups or even for a coffee. (Side bar, I guarantee we could drink you under the table having had years more practice.)

Most importantly, mature students, if you are worried that everyone is comparing their legitimately adult life to yours, just remind yourself that they aren’t. And in any case what anyone thinks of you is, quite frankly, none of your business.

If that fails, just remind yourself of Doireann Garrihy’s wise (and accurate) words, “No one gives a fuck about you”.