Imagine being in your first year, heading to that first lecture with a slight hangover from the night before and butterflies in your stomach.
You walk in, and the whole room looks at you, assuming you are the lecturer rather than a student just like them. This is a common experience for mature students, and it is one Lorraine Callaghan is more than familiar with.
A positive and bubbly woman in her early 50s, Ms Callaghan is the recently re-elected SRC member for age equality. Her enthusiasm and progressive thinking have led to huge steps in setting up a community for mature students.
An ex-HR manager for Tesco, Ms Callaghan was in the workforce for 33 years.
She applied to St Andrews after being inspired by a friend’s son to make a fresh start: her father worked in scaffolding and her mother worked at a corner shop, so after Ms Callaghan left comprehensive school she immediately began working to bring in money.
“I was working long hours, and did I feel fulfilled?” Ms Callaghan explained. “No. So I took a bit of a leap of faith.”
Now in her second year at St Andrews, Ms Callaghan is loving her experience and has thrown herself fully into student life, even taking part in the foam fight last year.
But some mature students find it easier than others to integrate into the University.
“I was hearing things like ‘I sit in the car in between lectures. I don’t feel part of this university.’ If you look at evening and part-time degrees, most of those guys work,” Ms Callaghan said.
“So they do a full day’s work, get in the car and drive — from Edinburgh some of them — to come and study, and their degree takes nine years, and some of those guys do three modules at once, don’t ask me how.”
She continued, “Then there’s commuting, if you’re getting the bus, for example — if your bus doesn’t turn up and you’re due for a tutorial and you’re not there, you’re not treated any differently from anyone else. Some people have children. People are married, so they’ve got family commitments, ageing parents, sick parents. It’s a different stage of life.”
As she adjusted to life at St Andrews, Ms Callaghan noticed the absence of support for students dealing with such circumstances.
Of just over 7,000 students enrolled in the 2016-17 academic year, there are 178 registered undergraduates over the age of 21.
Such numbers, as Ms Callaghan pointed out, deserve a support community in the form of a Mature Students Association or, as she prefers, a Lifelong Learners Association.
Equivalent groups are already present in many other universities, including ones in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling.
The current lack of support is one reason Ms Callaghan decided to become an official representative on the Students’ Representative Council.
She described her first experience with the council, saying, “I rocked up, thinking ‘I’ll support whoever’s going to do it,’ and there wasn’t anybody, so I took it on.
“And I’ll be honest, it’s been absolutely fantastic. The Students’ Representative Council was just amazing. They were really welcoming, really supportive. I mean, I am so much older than everybody else, and it crossed my mind ‘should I just go?’ But no. It’s been brilliant.
“What I love about it is they treat me like a student, which at the end of the day is what I am.
“I was lucky because we have a commuters’ room [situated near the arch at the bottom of the stairs on the right of the library], and it was through that commuters’ room that I really got to know people. There’s been a lovely support network of mature students who I met literally through going in and making a cup of tea. […] I was really fortunate and got to meet lots of other students, and we would say, ‘Gosh, if it wasn’t for this commuter’s room, I don’t know how I would cope.’”
Ms Callaghan added that her fellow mature students are an essential source of support.
When one individual mentions concerns about writing their first essay, other students share tips such as speaking to CAPOD or attending tutors’ office hours.
“I’d worked in many different industries – distribution, different formats of stores, Boots – and I’ve had the experience of being able to rock up and you’ve just got to get on with it,” she said.
“You’ve got to walk in the door and say, ‘Hi, how do you do?’ I think it’s a self-confidence thing.
“I’m lucky because with the guys I’ve met through SRC, I know what a Pablo is. Now how many mature students could say that? I’ve tasted a Pablo, and I’ve been in the Union until it’s time to go, and that’s great, but that’s a bit about who I am, and not everybody feels entirely comfortable with that.”
As member for age equality, Ms Callaghan sits on the Equal Opportunities Committee, which allows her ample opportunity to give a voice to mature students.
Through the committee, Ms Callaghan has set up a Lifelong Learners Forum she hopes will serve as the foundation for an eventual Lifelong Learners Association.
The forum currently includes Ms Callaghan, a secretary, a treasurer, a member without portfolio, and representatives for student parents, commuter students, part-time and evening degree students, and postgraduate students.
With this team behind her, Ms Callaghan seems to have all the bases covered. But setting up an ideal network for mature students is easier said than done.
One of the main obstacles is communication.
Ms Callaghan explained, “A lot of the life-long learners don’t like Facebook. They don’t use it. It’s not for everybody, so if everything goes on Facebook we then exclude that population altogether.”
Going forward, Ms Callaghan and the rest of the forum team will use both a mailing list and Facebook to communicate with mature students.
“We’re waiting on a logo, and then we can do some publicity, which is all amazing,” she said. “When we launch [the Lifelong Learners Association we’ll have] things in place: a communication network [and] a strong committee. We’ve had the support of the Union in getting set up and doing the things we want to do.
“For example, mature students aren’t always savvy with IT, so how do we arrange an IT workshop? And I’m sure if I went to the University and said, ‘This is what we need,’ it would be there. They would absolutely sort that.
“We talked about doing a pier walk and inviting all the mature students to bring their families along. […] We want to say, ‘That’s one of St Andrews’ traditions. Why don’t you come and get involved?’ I’d like the Lifelong Learners Association to be in place in St Andrews, and I’d like that to be my legacy. I want whoever arrives [after] me to have as good a time as I’ve had and feel a part of the student body as I have.”
Ms Callaghan hopes all lifelong learners share their input with the forum and eventual association.
She concluded, “My challenges are not going to be the same as somebody else’s, and it would be arrogant of me to say I’m representing all mature students. That’s not fair. You need to tell me what affects you, and then I’ll try and help.”
Interested in joining Ms Callaghan on this progressive journey? E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org