Last year, at the age of 34, I decided to take a break in my career to return to university for a master’s degree—thirteen years after I graduated the first time.
I was excited to be back in the world of academia, but apprehensive too. Although I was a teacher and working in an educational field, I wondered how I would cope with the academic demands of a master’s degree so long after my undergraduate degree. I was also worried about the social side of things on a full-time course. A lot of the advice out there seemed to assume that mature students were part time, or already living with their own families. I was going to be living in a shared student house again and two of my housemates were twenty-three years old! I didn’t know anyone in Birmingham and I was concerned about the lack of a support system while I was taking on an intensive year of study.
When I started my course I was one of the oldest students; there were a good number of students who had come straight from an undergraduate course or a gap year. But there were also quite a lot of people who had been working and had returned to study, so luckily there was a mix of different ages and situations. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as I had feared.
I knew that making new friends would be a big part of creating a positive experience at the university. So although I’m not a social butterfly by any measure, I made the effort to meet people in the first couple of weeks before study really started. During welcome week I joined the Art Society, and the Postgraduate and Mature Student Association (PGMSA). The PGMSA introduced me to people in a similar situation to the one I was in, but it was in Art Society, where I met people who shared my interests, that I really made some great friends. Our common interests make it easier to forget the age difference—although I do get teased about it sometimes. I was told by one friend that I was his ‘favourite middle-aged person’, but it was all in fun … I think!
I’ve found that rather than being weird, my situation is interesting to some people, and I had a really long conversation with some of the ArtSoc members about what it was like going to university before everyone had their own laptop and before Social Media existed (the general consensus was that it was less complicated but also less convenient).
I’ve found the best way to handle the insecurity of the situation is to know how to laugh at yourself. Usually I’m the one starting age jokes about how things were back in ‘my day’ and all those damn kids on my lawn. But age really is just a number; one of my friends turned twenty recently and she’s one of the most responsible and mature people I know, and one of my younger housemates is wiser at twenty-four than I think I will ever be!
Having the same interests goes a huge way towards getting on with people of any age, and societies or sports teams are a great way to find people who have similar interests. Once you have something to talk about other than what A-Levels you did, you forget about the age difference and just see people as they are. This also applies to people doing the same course as you. We were all studying the same thing for a reason and that gives you a great common ground from which to build friendships.
As for the academic side of things, the university is very aware that many students are returning to academia after time away. There’s advice accessible online, a personal tutor who was available for academic support, and resources like the Academic Writing Advisory Service. At AWAS you can get individual appointments to get style advice for specific assignments. The advice I received there was so helpful in raising my writing to postgraduate level. After worrying so much I have gained Merits and Distinctions in all my assignments and am currently enjoying (yes, really!) writing my dissertation.
So my final advice would be to find the support you need, get involved, and remember to tell these millennials that back in your day you had to walk fifteen miles in the snow to Starbucks. Uphill. Both ways. 😉