Learning New Tricks: Postgraduate Study as a Mature Student

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. 😉

 

Finding Accommodations: Stratford

My name is Anna Hegland and I’m an international student from the United States. Last September I flew 3,800+ miles from my home in the Midwest to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I’m currently completing an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. It’s not easy moving halfway across the world by yourself, especially when you don’t know where you’ll be living or if you’ll get along with the housemates you’ve never met in person (or even if you’ll recognize them the first time you do meet), so here are some tips and tricks for one of the biggest tasks you’ll be facing right off the bat: accommodation.

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other incoming students.

Most people do choose to live in Stratford rather than on campus in Birmingham. Life is a lot easier when you’re not commuting by train every day. A few months before getting on the plane to Stratford, the University’s Housing and Accommodation Services circulated a Flat Search Contact form, which included the names and email addresses of other incoming Shakespeare Institute students looking for roommates or housemates for the upcoming year. Make sure you take full advantage of this form; fill it out and then get in touch with people! Sharing a house or flat is a great way to split the cost of living in Stratford, which is not inexpensive.

Yes, it’s awkward to email a group of complete strangers and ask if they’d like to consider living with you, but if you want or need a roommate, you’ll need to get your courage up and just do it. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself and know that everyone else feels just as awkward as you do. Since you’ll only receive contact information for other students at the Institute, it’s guaranteed that you all have at least one interest (Shakespeare) in common. My first emails included an introduction and three quick facts about myself, similar to what you would find on a normal college or university roommate form (morning person or night owl? smoker or non-smoker? tidy or messy?). I ended up with two other girls, one from the US like me and the other from near London.

While it’s a bit of a shot in the dark, contacting a stranger, chatting with them for a few weeks, and then deciding to live with them, I got really, really lucky with my housemates. We were able to find a beautiful three-bedroom house, sign the lease, and move in in just under a week. We get along really well and our house runs pretty darn smoothly.

housemates(While writing this blogpost, I’ve discovered that my housemates and I have apparently never taken a normal, nice picture together.)

2. Start looking early…

 I knew I wouldn’t be able to move straight into a house when I first arrived in Stratford, so I booked a hotel in Birmingham for the weekend (since I was arriving on a Saturday and knew I’d be jet-lagged) and then an AirBnb in Stratford for the first week that I was here. That way I knew I had a place to stay while I met my housemates and we looked for places to live. My AirBnb host was lovely — she offered to help me contact estate agents and gave me tips about what areas in town might have more rentals available. Make sure you start looking for a B&B or AirBnb early and book your spot a few weeks before you arrive — Stratford is a tourist town and places can fill up quickly!

 I’d also advise taking a preliminary look at letting agents and what kind of rentals they offer before you get to the UK. This will help you narrow down which agents you’ll book an appointment with and give you an idea of what to expect from them in terms of average prices, locations around Stratford, and types of properties available. While it’s nice to look at furnished flats and houses, it’s not always possible to get one. If you end up in an unfurnished place, take a look at the second-hand and hospice stores in Stratford before buying anything. Oftentimes you can find cheap used items that still look just fine! Our wooden kitchen table (and matching chairs) was free in a second-hand shop, all we had to do was cart it away. The surface is a little scratched, but it’s large enough that we could host a potluck Thanksgiving dinner, so we don’t mind. If you do want to rent some bigger items (bed frames, sofas, armchairs, etc), a site like Bradbeers is a good choice.

 If you’d like to live by yourself, a bedsit (where you rent a room in someone’s home) or a studio flat might be the right option for you. Check sites like RightMove or Dwellings of Warwickshire for studio, one bedroom, and bedsit options. My housemates and I looked at a few different letting agents, including Sheldon Bosley, Westbridge & Co., Edwards, and Connells, before finding a property through Charles Saville. You can also find information on available properties and letting agents through RightMove, which has tons of listings.

Be aware that not all letting agencies will work with students — some really prefer to rent to families. Our lead-off question when meeting with a new letting agent was “do you have any properties available with two to three bedrooms for students?” If the answer was “no,” then we could cross that agent off our list and move on.

3. … But not too early.

 Most agents aren’t prepared to have someone looking for a place to live three months in advance, so while it’s good to do your research and get your bearings, know that they’re not able to really help yet. However, many letting agents will let you register with them so that you receive email updates on new openings and you’re in their system. Try to register with them in mid to late August (and no earlier) so that they know you exist and you can hit the ground running in September when you arrive in Stratford. Very few agents were willing to let us book an appointment before we had arrived, even if we had registered with them. Booking an appointment to talk through more details and see a few places couldn’t happen until we were all there in person. If you have one housemate arriving slightly earlier, it’s a good idea to have them act as a scout and set up appointments with various agents for once everyone’s arrived. Our letting agency, Charles Saville, was willing to work with us as students and were fairly accommodating of our tight schedule.

4. Shop around.

 Make a budget and stick to it. Once you’ve settled on a potential housemate (or two, as I did), have a chat about how much you’re willing to spend per month on accommodation, but be flexible, since sometimes adding an extra £20 – £50 to your budgeted rent can make a huge difference in the quality of properties available. Also remember that you’ll have extra costs like utility bills, food, maintenance, and supplies, and figure those in to your budget as well. You’ll also need to be ready to pay a deposit on your flat or house, which can be an expensive upfront cost. But the old saying rings true: you get what you pay for. Sometimes you’ll find a place that falls within your budget, but doesn’t seem like a place you’d be happy living.

 Like I said above, we looked at 5 different agents and plenty of other listings on RightMove and Dwellings. Know that it’s ok to say no. If you don’t like a flat or a house that you’ve viewed, or the letting agents are being unnecessarily difficult, walk away. You don’t owe them anything; their job is to help you find a place to live.

 Lastly, read everything carefully. Before you sign any agreements, take the time to read them thoroughly, even though it’s a pain, and make sure you understand all of it. If there’s something you’re unsure of, ask the letting agent to explain it to you. Again, this is their job.

 Some things can’t be helped, like the fact that you can’t get a bank account until you have a UK address, but it’s helpful to have a bank account as you’re dealing with paying the deposit on a place to live (it’s a very circular bureaucratic process at times).

5. Go with the flow and enjoy your time here.

 Overall, Stratford is a lovely place to live. It’s small and quiet, but the train makes it easy to get to London, Birmingham, or any number of other cities whenever you need a change of scenery. There are plenty of restaurants and multiple grocery stores here within walking distance (the Maybird Shopping Centre is a lifesaver when you first arrive and need to get house supplies). Take full advantage of your proximity to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company; from the archive and library to part-time employment to the gardens and the stage, both organizations have a lot to offer students.

hallscroft(The garden at Hall’s Croft.)

Do keep in mind that most of the shops in the town centre close around 6pm during the week, which took a little getting used to. It’s a little disconcerting at first to leave the library after a full day of research and be met with empty streets. But as far as culture shock goes, the transition from the US to Stratford has been very smooth. Even if the process of moving here and getting settled seems daunting and overwhelming at first, you can get through it. Enjoy living here, enjoy meeting new people, and enjoy the MA program. Remember that you’re here because you love Shakespeare — and you get to study his work while living in his town!

parade(MA and PhD students celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday.)

You can find more information on housing in Stratford-upon-Avon on the University of Birmingham website and by contacting Jackie Spellacy (j.a.spellacy@bham.ac.uk) in Housing and Accommodation Services.

Anna Hegland is a full-time student in the MA Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute.