Better with age

Illustration: Alexandra Zagaynova
Illustration: Alexandra Zagaynova
Illustration: Alexandra Zagaynova

Think back to your Freshers Week, all anxiety and excitement. The constant introductions and refrains of ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what are you studying?’ One of the only comforts was the fact that everyone else was in the same boat you were in: new to St Andrews and desperate to make friends.

Now imagine coming to Freshers Week as a mature student. The anxiety is the same, but in this case you might be a 22-year-old transfer student. Or a 35-year-old parent. Or a 60-year-old retired policeman. All of a sudden, it becomes much harder to feel like you belong.

Aysha Marty is a 22-year-old mature student. She is a first-year languages student and has recently been elected as the Mature Students Representative. About Freshers Week, she said: “I tried really hard.”

Her predecessor, Mel Turner, is a mature student in her thirties. In addition to commuting over an hour each day from her home in Blairgowrie, she also has children. “Coming to Freshers Week, I couldn’t really take part in a lot of things,” she said. “I came across and bought a gown because it was kind of my way of feeling a part of St Andrews, if that makes sense. I thought, If I’ve got a gown, at least I’ve got that.”

According to the University, a mature student is anyone who has been out of full-time education for over three years prior to applying. However, in reality, it is difficult to define this group precisely. Mel said that after she was elected the Mature Students Representative last spring, she asked whom exactly she was representing. It turns out there is no easy answer to her question.

One issue is that mature students as a group overlap with many other demographics: commuting students, general degree students and part-time students, for example. Ondrej Hajda, the Director of Representation, said: “There’s a big overlap between these groups. But it’s not the same group. So all of them will have slightly different needs.” In order to represent them well, Ondrej said: “I just don’t want to iron them out into one group.”

Another problem is a lack of visibility. Aysha said: “I don’t think there are any misconceptions about mature students. I just think that people don’t know anything about them.”

Mel agrees: “I think one of the big things with St Andrews is that you don’t expect us to be here.” Although mature students may not appear to be students at first glance, they play an important role in diversifying our student body.

There is no one typical mature student. Current mature students include a retired mill worker and a former butcher. Aysha is a mature student, but is only a few years older than her peers. Michelle Christie, however, is a 41-year-old second-year student, so for her, the age gap is more of a challenge.

Regardless of the difficulty in defining them as a group, the mature student population at St Andrews is only growing. In the last two years, the University has made a concerted effort to support mature students. There is now a dedicated staff member who works on their behalf, and the SRC includes a mature student rep.

Nonetheless, the mature student experience is still quite singular. From the start, mature students access and experience their St Andrews education differently.

Before applying, Mel completed her qualifications in one year after having been out of the education system for 15 years. “It’s a bit harder to get straight-As after only studying for seven months – if that – and not having done a lot for a long time,” she said.

For Aysha, the application process was also difficult. Though she had attended a different university and had completed an undergraduate degree before, when she applied to St Andrews, “I had to do everything myself,” she said. The experience proved to be isolating. “When I was applying, it was quite daunting, and I felt like there were no other students that I could contact,” she said. “It’s nerve-wracking for everyone, but mature students do feel quite alone.”

The stakes were also higher. “It’s a much more serious decision than going from school when everyone else is doing it,” Aysha said. “I know people who have got children, and it’s a huge move for them to do that. They have to make sure that it’s the right thing. They can’t make any mistakes.”

Once accepted, mature students have to navigate being a student. Mel said, “I’ve had a lecturer actually accuse me of being a parent while sitting in a lecture theatre.” Michelle adds: “I get mistaken for a member of the public or a postgrad or lecturer most of the time.”

While all students have to find their place within the Bubble, there is a bit more to navigate for mature students. Mel said, “I think one of the difficulties is finding your place in the fit of things. So you’re a student, but you’re probably the same age as your lecturer. You might even be older. So it’s a balancing act, and one I’ve definitely struggled with: how to relate to the lecturers as much as the students.”

Beyond the classroom, mature students face further resistance. Michelle said: “I find that other students, when at tables in streets advertising societies, tend to ignore or not comprehend that I am a student. There is no interaction at all.”

Without a social support system, mature students feel marginalized. “To be excluded from certain things becomes rather repetitive and can lead to feeling social exclusion, which ultimately can affect studies,” Michelle said.

Many student social events are exclusive of mature students, especially those who are parents. “Because you give up so much of yours kids’ time to be away from them to study, when there are events, it would be great to bring them with you,” Mel said. However, when she has inquired about bringing her children to societies’ ceilidh events, she was told not to do so because of health and safety reasons. “That’s just a bit mad,” she said.

Omar Ali, the newly elected Equal Opportunities Officer, said that he is committed to providing more social opportunities for mature students. “They just don’t have the time to stay until two in the morning, get very drunk and make it home on the bus,” he said. “So giving them more opportunities to go out and to take advantage of student life and activities… is ultimately what’s going to make them feel included.”

The university experience is much more than just academic, and this is no less true for mature students. “The hardest thing is making people realize that it’s not just about the education and the learning,” Mel said. “To get the most out of this, you have to do it all-encompassing. And mature students can’t always do that.”

For example, studying abroad is often not an option for mature students who are married or who have children. Even trips organized for students at the University can be impossible. “So there’s this big carrot dangling there, and you would love to jump at the chance to take a break, but you just can’t do it,” Mel said.

Onrej said that the solution is in students working together. “We cannot say that all the responsibility is on the mature students or all the responsibility is on the societies. It needs to be a combination,” he said. “I think we’ve found [the most success] when mature students get involved with a society.” In this case, the mature student member can lobby for events that cater to their needs, whether that means scheduling events earlier in the day or making sure they are family friendly.

In the future, there is much to be done to improve the mature student experience. As the new Mature Students Representative, Aysha is focused on bringing mature students together as a group to learn more about what issues are most important to them. For Mel, the biggest issues are the need for childcare facilities on campus for students who are also parents and for family-friendly social events.

Having said all this, it is important to note that mature students have more in common with other students than not. One thing all students can bond over is our shared drive to succeed.“ We are here to better ourselves and in many cases bring a better future for our children,” Mel said.

Regardless of age, the student experience is a unifying one. “We are the same as the younger students,” Michelle said. To that, Mel adds: “We’re just as scared as you guys are sitting in lectures, nervous, don’t want to ask a question. And in tutorials, as well, just because we’re older doesn’t mean we want to speak up!”

For more information on the mature student experience, contact Student Services.


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