Returning To Education As A Mature Student


It’s so tempting to start this post off with some kind of reference to teaching old dogs new tricks, but I’ll do my best to resist. As I’ve alluded to a couple of times in the last month or so, at the beginning of September I went back into college full time. Returning to education has been the culmination of lots of things which happened to me over the last half-decade: moving to Dundee, getting ill, losing my job then teaching myself how to read again, even things like the pandemic, shielding, Duolingo and taking some Skillshare courses over the summer have all led to me believing that I’m ready for college.

I’ve had a couple of unsuccessful attempts to go to university before. The first time round I was nowhere near ready, I was an incredibly angry 17 year old who walked away from making an application. Second time I made it as far as the first year of a degree, but lack of money and vital support led to me having to leave. This time, despite everything going on in the world, I’m in one of the strongest positions of my life personally and emotionally. I have ambitions that require a university degree in order for me to achieve them. Of course I wish that wasn’t the case, I wish that there wasn’t such an emphasis on university being seen as the only valid or respected form of education, but it’s the world we find ourselves in and there’s shit I want to do.

So, my first step is taking part in the Scottish Widening Access Programme (SWAP), a scheme which supports people who’ve been out of education for a while to get back on the horse, so to speak. It’s a one year course at a local college, mine is geared towards accessing humanities subjects at university so I have lessons in things like English, History, Sociology, Psychology and – unfortunately – also Maths (which I couldn’t be more terrible at). This ‘proves’ to universities that you would be generally able to cope with university level study. There are also ‘preparing for Higher Education’ classes such as critical thinking and essay writing which I’ve found useful.

The first few weeks were a complete baptism of fire, I felt wildly out of my depth and my head physically hurt at the end of every day. It wasn’t only the shock to the system that learning full time again provided, but as the whole course had been moved to remote delivery, attending my classes from home via Microsoft Teams was one hell of a learning curve! When I applied the plans were to attend classes on campus, but I can’t emphasise enough just how much this remote learning has made the course accessible for me. All the lecture recordings and slides are available electronically to refer back to, I can attend my classes in my pyjamas or from bed when I’m in a lot of pain. I can get to classes I would have had to miss if I’d needed to be on campus. I give all the credit for me making it through the first month to the remote nature of the course.

Although ready for it, I will admit that returning to education intimidated me. As a former ‘gifted’ student I did not look forward to finding out what illness and time had done to my capacity to learn. At first, I was convinced I was done for, but with time – and the support of the college – I’m finding my groove… dare I say I’m even thriving! I’m so pleased that Andrew and I were able to find a way to still make this happen for me, even after the disaster year we’ve been having. I’m so happy. I’m up to my elbows in assessments and essays, UCAS, open days and personal statements; but most importantly I’m making plans for myself and I feel like I have the opportunity to improve my life, which is not something I’ve been able to say for a while.

Long story short, don’t write yourself off. If you are considering returning to full time education as a mature student then please know that colleges and universities are falling over themselves to attract non-traditional learners to their institutions. Also, SWAP courses are fully funded and there are bursaries available for help with costs such as books and travel. Universities have similar scholarships and bursaries, and dedicated Widening Access teams that support you through your time with them. I’ll know a lot more about the university experience once I get there, but as a college student they can’t do enough for you – St. Andrews has been particularly impressive with the outreach they do to local colleges .

In the rest of the UK, the alternative to SWAP would be an Access course and as far as I can tell, largely the same rules apply. Some universities don’t require you to do a college course at all, you can just apply through UCAS as an individual without being affiliated with any college or institution. That route was tempting for me, as it would be quicker, but I personally felt I needed some reassurance that I could still cut it as well as having some concrete proof for any prospective university.

Lastly, I’m passionate about university for myself, but please know that this isn’t a recruitment pitch. As I mentioned above, university isn’t the be all and end all, there are tons of other educational routes to take. Amongst my peers on the course some are aiming for HNC’s and HND’s so staying on for further study at college, some are heading into community teaching, and others are looking at social work; there is such a broad spectrum. So many of us have been shafted by this pandemic this year, a lot of us have lost our jobs and are scrabbling to retrain in some way. If you’re in the same boat and returning to full time education appeals to you, but it’s been a while, then I say go for it. As long as you have the time, ability and a little patience with yourself, what have you got to lose by trying?

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