A mature students' survival guide

Louise Tickle talks to mature students about why they decided to go to university … and what it's like living in a sea of teenagers

Having retired early from teaching, Alice Trangmar, 72, became fascinated by quilting, and four years ago decided to try a foundation course in textile art. She loved it, and has just achieved a 2:1 for her degree in multi-media textiles at Loughborough University

"I rang up in June sure that they'd have no places left, but they said, 'Yes, we still have a few'," Trangmar recalls. But, though she grabbed the chance with both hands, it wasn't without reservations.

"In a way I was dreading young people," she explains. "I felt I'd be so out of it. But that turned out to be silly. I was totally amazed by the attitude of the young people because they were fantastic, and all you ever hear is bad things."

Knowing she was financially secure meant that Trangmar subsequently felt able to pursue a multimedia degree without any worries about getting a job at the end of it. Even without that pressure, starting the course took some courage.

"The hardest thing about going back into a study situation was probably the first essay, and using the library, because everything was more electronic," says Trangmar.

"The first lecture was just awful. I'd never want to do that again – for a start, I'd never used a Mac and didn't know how to turn it on. Nothing was explained. I came away thinking I'd like to give that man a sewing machine and no instructions and ask him to a fit a collar by 4pm!"

Having chosen to specialise in knitting – she creates knitted balls that are then dipped in ceramic slip and fired – Trangmar says that she had to be very honest with tutors about her technical limits, but that being a mature student gave her a different relationship with those teaching her.

"Young people are maybe a bit frightened of saying things in case the tutor doesn't like it, but I didn't care. And they were all so desperate for jobs, but with my work, I could afford to really play, experiment and have things fail."

The three years were a very busy time. "I felt guilty sometimes, that my daughter lives four miles away and I saw nothing of her."

The social interaction with other students was, however, the best part of the experience for her. "I really, really miss it!"

Alice's tip "It's your degree and your chance, so ask for the resources you need and if you don't get them, keep asking till you do."

Laura Robinson, 23, is being sponsored by Morrisons supermarket through her BSc in business management at the Bradford School of Management.

Leaving school at 17 without completing her A-levels and then giving birth to her son, Alfie, at 19 might have put paid to most teenagers' hopes of doing a degree. Laura Robinson, however, was determined to get back into education to further her prospects and support her son.

After getting a job at a college, she was encouraged to embark on an HNC in business.

"During the second year of my course I was offered a secondment as PA to the [college's] vice-principal, and that was when I really got a taste for wanting a career rather than just another job," she explains.

Spotting an advert for Morrisons' fully sponsored degree programme, Robinson didn't hesitate to apply.

"I knew it was within my reach if I worked for it, and what better reason than that I have a son I want to support and inspire to be all that he can be if he works hard enough?" she says.

The selection process for the Morrisons degree, however, was the toughest Robinson had ever encountered. Once she had been accepted, did she worry that her age and the responsibility of looking after her son would make her feel out of the loop?

"I did wonder if I might be the oldest on the course and certainly the only single parent," she remembers. "I worried I might not fit in."

Luckily, she says, she couldn't have been more wrong. "Being older and a mum does make me feel slightly different from my peers, but not in a bad way. I enjoy spending time with them – they make me feel younger. I guess the responsibilities and the age make me more grateful for the opportunity and appreciative of how rare it is to be fully sponsored through a degree. I don't think I would have been this committed at 18."

There are advantages to being older, Robinson points out – for instance, she doesn't worry as much if something goes wrong because she has other experiences to compare it with.

"I have friends who have all completed their degrees by now and so in comparison I guess I do feel a little behind," she says. "The important thing, though, is that I'm doing it, even if a little later than I might have hoped."

Laura's tip "Don't let being a mature student define you. University is so diverse and takes people from all walks of life, so don't be put off by the thought of being surrounded by school-leavers."

Mark Sinclair, 42, has just finished a foundation degree in professional culinary arts at Bournemouth University.

Having worked his way up from tea boy in a merchant bank to phone broker at the London International Financial Futures Exchange, Mark Sinclair left the City, went travelling, worked as a divemaster ... and then ended up back in the UK as a commodities trader. Cookery, however, had always been a secret passion.

"My mother used to let me experiment in the kitchen from an early age, and ended up eating my experiments, both good and bad," he says.

Together with his wife, Sinclair enrolled on a patisserie evening course at Bournemouth and Poole College and loved it so much he signed up for the more advanced course immediately afterwards.

His wife and an "inspirational" college tutor decided he had to take his hobby more seriously, and colluded to apply for a place for him at Bournemouth University. He had never done a degree, and had left school with 12 O-levels and CSEs.

"My wife then presented me with my acceptance letter on my 40th birthday," he says, "and told me to 'go and live my dream'."

Somewhat nervous about meeting other, much younger students on his course, Sinclair remembers that, sure enough, "they thought I was one of the tutors when they first met me!"

Any anxieties about sticking out as a mature student, however, were short-lived.

"I like to think that I helped them – I wouldn't want to patronise anyone by saying that some of them looked at me as a bit of a father figure, but it did feel a little like that at times."

Being a mature student makes you appreciate every single one of the opportunities you're getting, observes Sinclair, who relished the pressure of his placement in a Michelin-starred kitchen, and now wants to open a boutique hotel of his own.

Being at the mid-point of your life with the responsibilities of family certainly helps you to avoid some of the traditional pitfalls of being a fresher. Sinclair knew he couldn't do crazy nights out or roll into university just before a class: "I had to get home to put the kids to bed or go to work [as a commis chef in a local restaurant] to pay the bills," he says, "so for me it was a very different experience."

Mark's tip "Make sure everything in your life is as organised as possible before you start. My biggest problem was finance, trying to find the time to work and still have time for all the assignments and classes."

Jason Tomlinson, 39, volunteered for redundancy from his job as a machinist in a fabric factory, and, with no qualifications, did a level 2 and 3 access course at Chesterfield College to allow him to apply for a BSc in biochemistry at Nottingham University. He has just finished his first year, and wants to be a teacher.

"It was daunting, yes, but I'd been sitting at a machine for nine years watching my brain cells die," says Tomlinson, who only discovered he was good at maths on his access course when he found himself helping other students with their work.

He and his family have had to make sacrifices for him to do this degree, and money is tight – he's funding his studies with a student loan. His wife works part-time and the family gets tax credits. It would have been nice to put some of his redundancy towards the cost of his studies, he says, "but by the time my wife had put a new kitchen in, there wasn't much left!"

Turning up as a mature student with 20 years on most of the other freshers "felt weird, but I gritted my teeth and got on with it".

Having done all the carousing and clubbing he wanted while he was in the navy in his teens, Tomlinson says that his focus and motivation are probably stronger than those of his younger counterparts. He's not at university to socialise or have fun – he's there to learn.

This opportunity clearly means a lot to him. "My family were all miners. None went to university," he says. "My parents never discouraged me from stopping on [at school], but it wasn't the done thing."

Diagnosed with diabetes during his first year – illness is clearly something older students are more likely to have to deal with – Tomlinson says that the university couldn't have been more helpful. Nonetheless, after he had geared up to do this degree, his diagnosis and its effects clearly have been a setback, and he knows he has a lot to do to catch up.

Jason's tip Don't leave things to the last minute because, even if you could do coursework easily before, at university level assignments are more in-depth and take more time.


Louise Tickle

The GuardianTramp

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