Mature students' second act in education

Older peers share their on and off campus experiences

Mature students often balance schoolwork alongside working full-time jobs and raising children.

For many mature students, school days are filled with full-time jobs and mouths to feed at home. 

The burdens younger students can face—including family care, work, and increased responsibility—can become more pronounced among some older students. However, their education is often a stepping-stone to more autonomy and personal growth after a gap in their schooling. 

The University defines mature students as students who’ve been out of school for some time, and apply to university later in life. At Queen’s, there are 80 undergraduate students from ages 40 to 80. There are another 141 older than 30.

Some of these students are Interest Students, who take online courses purely for interest on a part-time basis. They may already have their university experience, but want to take a few classes without receiving a degree.

However, there are also many mature students who are registered full-time for degree plans, setting them up for graduate school and career paths similar to any other young student.

It’s a stark contrast to some younger students’ domestic responsibilities that can often be limited to taking out the garbage. 

For one, when Nicole Thomson leaves her studies, she returns home to her 16-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter.

After dropping out of the University of Ottawa in her early 20s, Thomson moved to B.C. A couple of decades and two kids later, she’s back for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology and English, this time as a single mother.

Although she came into first year with more life experience under her belt than most students fresh from high school, the transition was just as tough, but in different ways.

“Looking at a whole bunch of students that have their whole [lives] in front of them was initially emotionally and cognitively a bit of an adjustment,” Thomson said. 

But education was meaningful for her. It meant continuing to learn, and to hopefully help in her pursuit of a career path.

She said it’s still tough to focus entirely schoolwork when her children need her.

“There are times when I sit here after the kids go to school and I wonder if I can make it to class,” Thomson said.

Melissa Stire, a mature student in her fourth year of a Sociology degree, also had doubts when she transitioned back to university.

After her first class four years ago, she returned home thinking, “I can’t do this. I haven’t been in school in so long—and these kids are so smart.”

Balancing heavy work hours, personal lives, and a full course load is far from easy, especially when other students can focus all their efforts on studying. 

“A part time job that a student has isn’t [going to be sufficient for] what a mature student needs. Their needs are different,” Stire said.

She may not always be able to complete weekly assignments to the best of her ability, and others who don’t have the same responsibilities as her may not understand why.

Isolation is another factor—when Stire’s classmates meet up on campus to go over assignments and study notes together, she feels left alone to make sense of the material. 

She sometimes finds classmates disregard her input because of her age.

When such concerns become a burden, both Thomson and Stire cite the Ban Righ Centre as their haven for emotional support and community.

The Centre provides financial services and counselling for mature female students.

Since many women like Thomson and Stire use it, it’s also a place where they connect with each other and make friends on campus.

“They help you with financial support, emotional support, everything. There’s always someone to talk to there that’s been through it,” Stire said.

With this support at their disposal, it makes the hurdles of coming back to school manageable.

“I don’t think I’d be able to complete my degree if it wasn’t for them,” Stire said.

Meanwhile, other mature students may approach their studies more leisurely, but classes can still be as meaningful as they were at age 20.

Jennifer Butchart has also been at Queen’s for a while now, but not always as a student.

Butchart is the Senior Development Officer for Queen’s Arts and Science. She’s been working at Queen’s for seven years, and recently decided to take up a BA in English Literature.

In high school, English was Butchart’s worst subject. When she went to college, she studied Business Administration; she never thought of English Literature until recently.

She now takes two courses per semester on top of her full-time job at Queen’s and being a mother to her 15-year-old son.

Despite her student experience being somewhat isolated, Butchart has slowly integrated into Queen’s culture through her use of social media. She’s even met other mature students who she’s  connected with online.

Including mature part-time students in school initiatives, such as beginning to send out the Queen’s Reads book to them, has also made Butchart feel more at home as a student.

When she was in college, many steps in her life appeared to be a means to an end, going underappreciated. She couldn’t afford to accept her offer to Queen’s Commerce back then, but now, she says appreciates education more than when she was 20. 

Although English literature isn’t directly related to her career in fundraising, she’s always finding new perspectives from her courses that add to her career and life.

One student, Paul Hogan, agrees. He’s been working towards his BA in Political Studies at Queen’s for 10 years.

When his wife passed away 11 years ago, he felt unfulfilled. His friends encouraged him to find meaning again, asking him, ‘Is there anything that you’ve ever wanted to really do in your life?’

Hogan graduated from Grade 13 in 1973 thinking he knew everything there was to know. Within two years of working at his family’s farm on Wolfe Island, he had already begun to regret his decision to skip university.

After encouragement from his friends and the realization that getting a university degree had been a goal he never accomplished, Hogan decided to make a change.

He approached the University Registrar, asking what he could do to get into Queen’s in his 50s. 

Within a year, he was taking a couple courses each semester. 

While his courses are mostly for interest, he puts in his best efforts in class, goes to see professors and TAs when concepts confuse him, and pushes himself to do well.

His grades may help him apply to graduate school someday. And if they don’t, they still matter to him as something to work towards in middle-aged life.

In the classroom, however, he finds other students may resist argument and debate with him because of his age.

“I purposely ask questions or make comments that are a little bit out of the norm in today’s society, just to get some reaction, and very seldom do I get much,” Hogan said. “The professor will typically challenge me but the kids don’t, and I don’t know whether that’s my age or respect for an elder.”

Even though they may not directly engage with him class, Hogan is surprised by the potential he sees in millennials.

“I’m just blown away by the intelligence of these kids,” he said.

While he may not be the typical student on Queen’s campus, after 10 years, Hogan’s never looked back on his life-changing decision.

Education is personal growth. For some students, it’s a natural progression from high school, but for others, it represents a sense of autonomy. For mature students, it’s more a choice than an obligation.

“I feel younger being here,” Hogan said. “It’s really a great experience and I would highly recommend anyone who has the time and wants to do it to give it a shot.”

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