What it’s like to study as a real adult
If one more lecturer says, “You guys are probably too young to remember this…” and I’m the only student that remembers it, I might just yeet my computer out the window mid-Zoom.
I’m 23, not even that much older than most of my classmates. Still, it’s hard not to feel like a grandma when everyone else is fresh out of high school—sorry to all the people studying who are older than me. Trust me, I can feel your eyes roll as you think—ppft—23? Try returning to uni at 30! Or 50!
Don’t pretend like you haven’t noticed us. It’s pretty hard to miss the balding man sitting within the first three rows of the lecture theatre or the person who’s always taking notes with pen and paper. No, we’re not your lecturer or your tutor—we’re here for a degree, same as you.
Being a ‘mature’ student is an interesting experience. In one way, our lives aren’t too different from those of our younger peers; we work while we study and have bills to pay. But in other aspects, our lives couldn’t be further apart.
So, what’s it really like to be the oldest student in the room? I sent a questionnaire to members of the Mature Students Association to find out.
I received responses from people from all walks of life, from those in their early twenties to retirees. About 55% of respondents studied full-time, and 80% pursued undergraduate qualifications. Many people had been to university before, attending directly after finishing high school. Although, in some cases, attending university hadn’t been an option. For example, Chris, a 51-year-old studying a Master of Public Health, said, “[they] didn’t know how to study in high school.” That they “had large family commitments, didn’t even know what tertiary study was” and “couldn’t afford it” at the time.
As you might have guessed, a lot can happen in your life before you decide to go to university at 40. Mature students have spent their years not having breakdowns over assignments doing exciting things. Ty*, a 31-year-old studying for a BA(Hons) in Philosophy, “trained and worked as a stuntman for four years [and] tried to become a cop.” While Ty was throwing himself out of windows for money, other mature students were nannying in France, getting married, getting divorced, having children and even grandchildren. Most respondents have had entire careers before deciding to retrain or return to study. For example, Katherine*, a 33-year-old, is pursuing a Master of Audiology after working for 11 years as an engineer; Larissa* (44, BA in Sociology and Psychology) “owned businesses” and Andy (36, BE) “was a chef for 15 years.”
For those of you itching to leave the capitalist institution we call uni, it might be hard to comprehend why on earth anyone might want to identify themselves as four-letters-followed-by-three-numbers for at least three years, especially when they might have an established career and a stable source of income. Call them what you will, but mature students have several reasons for coming to UoA. The winner for the most wholesome response goes to Leo*. Leo’s 50 and is studying a BA in Art History and Anthropology. He said: “My late wife worked in many areas of the university, and eventually was a university teacher. She really encouraged me to give it a go. When she passed away, I took up study in honour of her.” I’m not crying. You’re crying!
Other mature students, like Jannai (41, PGDipSci), “wanted to get a degree and have a career where [they] could make a difference in the world.” Some students were following their life-long dream of going to university or pursuing a particular career. Some, like Mid-life student* (41, BFA/BSc in Computer Science and Psychology), just wanted to spice up their lives. Mid-life student wrote, “[I] was not enjoying work, and thought that if I don’t do something to change it, I will be stuck in a job I hate for the rest of my life.”
Sam*, who is 31 and studying for a BE, perhaps best sums up what it can feel like to decide to go to university later in life: “Career dream. Bravery or stupidity.” Apart from deciding which one of your kids to spend less time with this week or whether it would be weird to go flatting at 45, one of the biggest challenges adults face while studying at UoA is feeling isolated. Sean* (53, BE) said, “At my age, socialising with 20-year-olds feels weird or creepy, so I’m not making many friendships among fellow students.” Carla is 37 and studying towards a BSc in Food Science. They feel like they don’t always “fit in at clubs, drinking, games night, etc. Younger students find it a bit awkward having someone older there.” Similarly, Ty said, “Being ten years older than other students has sometimes been a real kick in the teeth. The age thing can be pretty awkward, especially socially. Being full time, I don’t see people my own age and it’s hard to really build a good social network (especially at UoA).”
Other challenges mature students face include being unable to “see the slides unless [they] sit at the front” (Larissa), that their “memory is not as good as it used to be” (Vicki 64, BA in History and Criminology); and generally feeling old. Trust me, nothing makes a person born pre-1999 feel geriatric than when the lecturer asks what year people were born and everyone says 2003. In addition, Old Person 42069* (50, BA Philosophy) was particularly triggered by the way fellow students “mistake them for a staff member all the time.”
Despite these challenges, going to university later in life has its perks. A handy advantage is that you have had time to figure out precisely what you like and value. Many respondents said things like: “I am really clear on what subjects I choose and why I am here” (Leo). Or “I’m more intentional about my area of study” (Ty), and “You really want to learn!” (Mid-life student). Relatedly, mature students say that they’re “not afraid […] to look silly” (Jannai). Effie*, a 46-year-old law student, said that you “don’t mind being the person at the front asking all the questions.” On behalf of all your classmates, TYSM Effie, for taking one for the team and making those awkward silences just a bit shorter.
Another great benefit of waiting to go to uni is being able to apply all your life experiences to help you in your studies. Apparently, “The stress of uni is nothing compared to the stress of running a kitchen!” (Andy). Katherine talked about how since studying the first time, she has “gained a huge number of life skills”, including how to “manage [their] time and understand the real world impacts of [their] discipline.” On a different note, David, who is 51 and studying law, mentioned how handy their historical knowledge is. In fact, “[they] helped write some of the legislation we are studying.” So, like—does David get to cite themselves? If so—jealous.
It would be a wasted opportunity to not ask mature students if they had any advice for their younger peers. What follows is some of the heartwarming words of wisdom from people who’ve lived the length of your life at least twice over; maybe you will find comfort in them:
“Study what interests you—not what your parents want you to do, or what you think will get you the best job. If you follow your interests you will end up with a fulfilling career.” — Mid-life student.
“There’s no rush. If you need to, take time out. Learn a trade, follow your dream. Life is long and you don’t need to know what you’re doing at 18 years old.” — Celeste*, 26, BSc in Biomedical Science.
“Travel as soon as the borders reopen!” — Andy.
“Enjoy the opportunity of being able to learn […] And to also enjoy the non-study aspects—those parties, the clubs, the relationships…they are as fundamental in forging who you are as the study is. (And the more parties you go to, the easier it is for mature students to steal the As!)” — David.
Mature students also want to encourage others who’re in similar situations to take up tertiary study.
“If you feel like you’re too mature to start university, you’re not. Fuck the voices in your head […] if it’ll make you happy, then do it.” — Venise, 22, BA in Classical Studies and Ancient History/Theological and Religious Studies.
“Be prepared for strange questions about why you’re there, odd looks, and people asking if you’re the lecturer. If it all gets too much, most lectures can be watched online.” — Larissa.
“There is support available for mature students at Auckland Uni. Don’t be afraid to ask for it!” — Leanne.
If we are to take one thing from the experiences of mature students, it’s that there’s no right way of doing life, despite how big the pressure may seem. Whether you go to uni straight after high school, wait until you’re 60, spend some time working before pursuing postgraduate study, or don’t go to uni at all, you won’t be alone. No one has any idea what they’re doing anyway, nor can they guarantee that what they’re doing now will still make them happy in ten years. Also, talk to your mature peers—if they don’t speak to you first, that is. They’re looking for a person to sit next to in the lecture hall or a familiar face to recognise on Zoom just as much as the next person.
*Some names have been changed to protect students’ identities.