University for grown ups

By Tiana Templeman

Mature age study can ignite the imagination, build confidence, increase earning potential and perhaps even help you land your dream job.
Roy Ualika, 38, enrolled in a Bachelor of Education degree after spending seven years working with at-risk youth. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Roy Ualika, 38, enrolled in a Bachelor of Education degree after spending seven years working with at-risk youth. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Mature age students often discover it is case of 'good things come to those who wait' when they make the decision to enter university later in life.

Unlike many school-leavers, they are clear about what they are studying and why, and already know what they hope to achieve.

Having time to experience the world of work provides adults with a unique skill set that can help them succeed at tertiary study. If mature age students need extra training or support, there are workshops and courses designed to help them settle into university life.

Professor Graeme Aitken, Dean of Education at the University of Auckland, is familiar with the life experience and determination to succeed that mature age students bring to university.

"Adult students bring a greater understanding of life in general that students who have come straight out of school don't have. They have made a conscious decision to pursue their career and, in that sense, have a higher level of commitment and motivation to study."

Roy Ualika, 38, made the decision to enrol in a Bachelor of Education degree and become a primary school teacher after spending seven years working with at-risk youth.

"The kids I was working with were aged between 13 and 16. I wanted to get qualified because it would give me the ability to intercept them at a younger age and help them sooner."

Returning to study was not a decision he made lightly.

"There is a lot of weight behind the decision to study as a mature age student. I am glad I did it, especially at the stage that I did. With teaching, it helps to have a lot of experience behind you."

Entering university as an adult is not without its challenges. Mature students often have additional responsibilities and pressures outside university.

There can also be an assumption that older first-year university students have 'got it together' and do not require the same level of support and guidance as their younger peers, something which is often far from the truth as Ualika discovered.

"It was very different to when I was in high school years ago. I had to do a lot more critical thinking and the whole academic side was terrifying. I had forgotten how to write an essay."

Fortunately universities have begun to understand that beginning or returning to study as an adult can be challenging and are providing programs to help make the transition easier.

"If you want to bring people into professions from diverse backgrounds, you need to provide pathways for them to do that," explains Aitken.

Workshops and courses can assist with general university skills such as academic writing, good study habits and preparing for exams.

There are also bridging programmes designed to prepare students for university study, particularly those who left school without a formal qualification.

For adult students who already have an undergraduate qualification and are returning to study, there is a six-week Introduction to Postgraduate Study course.

"This gets students reconnected to what it means to be in a university environment as, for some of them, it has been 15 or 20 years since they were at uni."

While settling into university life can be difficult, perhaps the biggest challenge for mature age students is fitting everything in, according to Aitken.

"Most of them have other commitments in their lives so it can be hard to them to manage the different demands. The biggest challenge is keeping up to date with their studies. If they get left behind, catching up can be very difficult."

These competing demands mean sacrifices are often made by adult students on a daily basis in terms of leisure time, social life and even time to sleep.

Finishing a required reading while they are on their way to work or waiting to collect children from school enables them to fit study time into days which are often devoted almost entirely to meeting the demands of others.

It is not uncommon for mature age students to also hold down a job, even those who are technically studying full time.

As a father of six, juggling multiple work, study and home commitments remains a constant challenge for Ualika.

"I go to uni four days a week which is classed as full-time. On my day off, I do mentoring for youth. I also work as a cook during semester breaks."

With so many commitments to manage, it can be helpful for older students to look for flexible study options such as online learning, weekend or summer intensive programmes, or units that offer evening classes.

For those gaining a tertiary qualification in their existing field of expertise, it can be worth investigating what workplace entitlements or other support might be available.

Mature age university students have the determination and desire to succeed and the maturity to avoid the distractions that university life can bring.

"As an adult you are not so worried about what is going on around you [at university]," says Ualika.

"You are there to study and to get your degree."

- NZ Herald

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