Thriving as a Mature Aged Student
Study later in life is a great opportunity
But it can certainly leave you feeling like the odd one out. Whether you're returning to study after a long break or joining a university for the first time, chances are you will face some hurdles.
The most obvious of these is the fact that your age puts you in a minority.
There's a good chance that you will be the oldest student or one of a just a handful from a different generation. Some courses, especially those for industry upskilling, will have you placed with some peers. But in some classes, you might be older than everyone - including the teacher!
It can be hard to get back into a teacher/student dynamic.
This is especially true for people who are accustomed to authority in their workplace or who are used to seeing teachers as the people who educate their kids. It may have been decades since you were the one asked to listen and learn. Make sure you are respectful of this new role.
There's a stereotype of the mature aged student as someone who interrupts their lecturer or domineers tutorials. This obviously isn't the case for everyone, but many people do struggle to read the cues about when to engage and when to listen in this new environment. If this might be you, make sure you always wait until an opportunity to presented to share an opinion or ask a question. This will usually happen after a lecturer finishes talking about a specific theme, at the end of a lecture, or during tutorial time set aside for free discussion. If given at the right time and with the right intentions, your thoughts will be a valuable contribution and much appreciated.
Remember that your teachers are also there to help. A big part of the university experience is realising that you're overwhelmed or falling behind in some area. This is a natural consequence of learning something new, but it can be confronting to your pride if you're used to having mastery over your vocation or being the source of knowledge in your family. University staff have specialised knowledge and skills, and you are coming to them to learn. There's no shame in reaching out and admitting that you need a helping hand.
Technology is often a stumbling block for older students.
It can be frustrating to see a classroom full of digital natives speeding through computer tasks when you're lagging behind. If technology hasn't been a big part of your career or hobbies, consider taking a basic course in using a laptop, word processing software, or internet skills. All of these will be needed, even in courses where it seems like a pen and paper would suffice.
You can take your own notes however you like, but a huge part of your learning experience will be administered through what we call 'learning management systems'. These are a kind of computer software that deliver various aspects of the classes you enroll in. An LMS is likely to be a big part of how you submit assessments and get feedback, know what readings to do, access important instructions, or download lecture slides. They tend to be user-friendly, but if you don't feel as though you have the skills to use this kind of technology - address this before you start! Often, university libraries run free training sessions for any important software you may need to study. That's certainly worth checking out.
Remember that university gives you valuable social experiences too.
Many mature aged students are so focussed on their classroom experience that they neglect the possibilities that can come from a room full of people who have at least one thing in common. You don't have to be lonely because you're in a minority.
The idea of clubbing with a bunch of freshly-minted 18-year-olds might not appeal, but anyone can enjoy chatting about your assigned readings over a cup of coffee. A big part of the university experience is bonding with your classmates, learning about their experiences and cultures, and giving them a taste of your own. You may worry that a younger person will find you boring or out of touch, but many would love to have a trusted adult to speak with who isn't a parent. And, if you give them a chance, you'll find that there are younger students who share your values, interests, and dreams.
You may also need to spend some time refining your work/study balance.
Some mature students are lucky enough to comfortably self-fund their continuing education. Others are studying with the support of their workplace in order to update their vocational skills. Nevertheless, you may be in a situation where money is a bit of a stretch or study has to exist alongside your career. This doesn't always lead to a seamless blend. Don't be afraid to change your schedule if your first semester leaves you burned out or broke. Many courses can be studied part-time, during the evening, or online at a time of your choosing. Others come in a condensed form, which allows you to dedicate a shorter but more intense period of time to study.
A similar principle applies to family demands. Do you have a child who still needs your care? Or an elderly parent who relies on you? Part of getting ready for your semester should include factoring in care schedules like babysitting or a visit from a home nurse. Make sure your family members understand what your study committments will look like and appreciate what it means to you. They might be surprised by how many extra hours you need to spend at the library or composing your assessments. You deserve support and understanding. The best way to get this is to communicate with your family and carefully work out what this new phase in your life looks like and what you will require to succeed.
Make sure you let your teachers know any relevant details about your work or family commitments if they will impact on your performance. Many will be happy to discuss options like extensions on assessments if something goes wrong.
Finally, don't forget the benefits!
There is so much richness you can bring to the classroom experience and a depth of wisdom that will shine through in your essays. You may have raised a family, had a career, or travelled the world. You've experienced hardships, illness, and personal triumph.
On a more practical level, your maturity should put you ahead when it comes to skills like getting ready for your important first week, setting achievable goals, staying focussed, managing your time and organisation, and knowing what topics and academic pathways really matter to you. There's also a good chance that you know how the skills you gain can actually be applied - be that to your career or to your personal development.
Learn to relax and enjoy the experience. Study is for you, after all!
Did you know that many institutions define a mature aged student as anyone over 21 or even 18? This article is for people with a more substantial age gap, but let us know if you want a guide for folk in-between!