In the first of this two-part series, Suzanne May gives us her top tips in how to make the most of the college experience as a mature student.
The coming weeks will see a fresh generation of young people take a major step in their lives as they venture off to college for the first time. However, there is another cohort of older people who will also take these daunting steps shortly.
 
Changes to the economy, job market and an increasing desire across society for a sense of meaning in one’s work has led to a significant increase in the numbers of people entering higher education after a time in the workforce. 
 
The Higher Education Authority’s statistics reveal that over 5,500 new mature students entered higher education last year, while the total number of mature students in the system totalled over 42,000 for the same period.
 
The Prospect
There are many positive aspects of entering third level at a later stage in life. The wealth of life experience possessed by mature students stands to them by allowing them to bring outside knowledge to their studies. 
 
They have spent time in paid employment and understand how the workplace operates, not to mention the value extra qualifications can bring to career development. 
 
Significantly, they may also have a deep passion for their chosen subject which can only stand to them as the daily grind kicks in. Arriving at the decision to become a mature student and then gaining your place can be a very exciting time.
 
At the same time, however, there are many aspects of studying at an advanced age which renders it a nerve-wracking experience. 
 
Mature students come from all walks of life, some have been working for just a short time while others are retirees who finally have a chance to pursue the education they never had the opportunity to realise in their youth. 
 
Still others may have to continue to work or care for young children or elderly parents while studying. In addition, those that have been out of education for a number of years may find it difficult to get back into the swing of studying and assignment writing. 
 
As someone who has just navigated the world of third level and came out the far side with a degree in my back pocket, I’d like to share some tips which may help new students to get the most out of their brief time in university.
 
Be mindful of your approach
Your own mind set is one of the most powerful tools you will bring to your education. Having made the decision to pursue a course of study for yourself or your career, you have made a huge step in reclaiming power in your own life. You are in control of your direction and your learning.
 
Despite how you may feel on a bad day, remember that your life is not on hold, it is developing in new and exciting directions. 
 
When studying full time your finances will most likely take a hit and discretionary spending may have to take second place for a while. Dedication to your friends and hobbies may slip up at times and it is easy to feel that everyone is passing you out while you’re feeling stagnant in college. 
 
It is hard to see at the start, but the years will fly past very quickly, and before long, life as you know it will resume. The difference will be that you have taken control of your life and made positive changes for yourself. 
 
Be open to the new experiences you are faced with and there will be many, from making new friends, to learning new things. Some subjects in a university education can challenge our most strongly held ideas. Although it may be hard at times, allowing yourself to engage with that process will help you to get the most out of it.
 
Oscar Wilde is often quoted as having said, 'Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’. You don’t need to pretend to be anything other than who you already are. No matter where you’ve come from or what you did before you entered that lecture hall, you are just as deserving as everyone else to be there.
 
Some people complete a return to an education course, others sit a mature student entry exam and younger people use the results from their Leaving Certificate to gain entry to third level. 
 
Either way you have all been approved for a place by the department that you are studying in. You have earned your place in that room so own it!
 
When you do feel overwhelmed, avail of the assistance that is out there. Most people jump at grants, but just as important are the non-monetary systems in place to help students. These can range from a counselling service, to the medical centre, writing and maths centres, peer tutoring services and the library, to name but a few. 
 
Familiarise yourself with who to go to and when before a problem develops so that you’re ready to deal with them when they do. While institutions put a lot of time and money into these services, my understanding is that they are underutilised by the student body. 
 
Crying into your computer won’t help solve a problem, go and find someone to talk to. Even that simple act can often make a problem appear somewhat less burdensome.
 
Planning your time from the start is essential. At the start of each module you will be informed how it will be examined, whether by continuous assessment or exam. This allows you to structure your work towards the end of the semester.
 
Leaving work until the last minute is a recipe for disaster. Staying on top of the weekly assignments and readings, though tough to do, can be the difference between struggling and keeping your head above water. 
 
It may help to organise a study group with some of your new found friends. Group encouragement and a supportive learning environment can make all the difference to some students.
 
 
 
Suzanne May is a recent graduate of Maynooth University where she thoroughly enjoyed her mature student experience. 
 
 
 
Photo: Seth Sawyers/ Flickr