The Oldest Student in Town — my first year as an undergrad in my forties

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘student’? Drinking, nightclubs, going out, meeting friends for life? It’s the start of your adult life, finding your feet and trying to find out which round hole your square brick fits into, career-wise.

That’s pretty much what I thought. I assumed I’d missed my opportunity several times. I went out to work in a pharmacy at the age of 16, straight from school. At 21 I’d managed to gain a couple of A Levels from free evening classes, and had a couple of decent passes in English and Sociology. But when I talked about giving up my civil service job and going off to uni, my then-boyfriend pulled a ‘don’t leave me’ face and told me we couldn’t carry on if I went to learn stuff. So I married him, instead.

Four years later, he was telling me if I stayed with him, he’d fund me to do the English degree I wanted locally. I couldn’t spend another three years living off him and so I reluctantly declined, and gave up the thought of a degree for about 20 years.

Twenty or so years later….

In 2018, I was at a crossroads. I was a full time freelance writer and had been doing OK until late 2017 when two of my regular clients said they wouldn’t need me anymore. I lost 75% of my income in the space of two months and the resulting panic led me into a conversation with my partner about what the hell I was going to do next.

“You’ve always wanted to do a degree,” he said. “Now would be the perfect time.”

I looked at him as if he was nuts. I had hardly any regular income, how could I manage full-time study? It sowed the seed though and I found out that I was eligible for a maintenance loan, applied that day and was accepted to start my English degree course as of September within a week or so of deciding to go. At the age of 47. I was excited, but in all honesty I also felt a certain amount of trepidation at being the oldest student in the class. I thought that being surrounded by a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears 18, 19 and 20 year olds would either make me feel very old, or a lot younger.

Just like starting over…

Come September, I enrolled, and joined a class of mostly 18 year olds. My plan was just to listen and observe at first, see what being around teenagers was like. I was nervous about the coursework — and shit, there was going to be TWO exams in the first year. Not only had I not sat an exam since A Level English in 1992, but I was going to have to apply for extra support as I’d forgotten that there was no way I could write for two hours with my poor, tendonitis-ridden joints. Luckily, the University of Suffolk has a fantastic support team in place and all the arrangements were made with very little stress.

I had to learn how to write academically after years of commercial copywriting. Ten or eleven years of writing for consumers, dumbing down and making things approachable was wiped out in one fell swoop with instructions on how to write academic essays, referencing and structuring. But I absolutely loved it. Reading with a purpose gave me an excuse to sit with my nose in a book again, and analysing classic literature like Wuthering Heights was a complete eye-opener. My background in and affinity for sociology helped me to apply Marxist, Feminist, New Historicist, Post-Colonial and even Queer theory to the tale of Cathy and Heathcliffe. I wrote 2000 words on how Cathy used self-starvation to exert control over her body in a culture where women had no other agency over their lives and got a bloody good grade for it.

By the end of the first term, I’d got to grips with critical theory, narrative technique and theory, and practiced academic essay writing with the help of a good dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451.I’d read The Turn of The Screw again and decided that it was all in Miles’ head because he was in love with the Governess all along and managed to write another essay on the techniques Henry James used to make me believe that. Not to mention sitting an exam (I passed).

Life as a mature student

Uni life at 47 is a bit different! I was invited to Fresher’s Week in September but when I realised that their big club night started at 10pm, I had to laugh. That’s when I’m thinking about coming home, loves. Plus — a foam party? A ball pit? I don’t think so…

I don’t share my home with a load of other students in halls. I live in a privately rented house where I have to pay ALL the bills and don’t get to move back to my parents over the summer. Balancing freelance work and studying has been interesting to say the least, but I’d like to think after over a decade of deadline juggling I’m doing OK. We have a Facebook Messenger group and I have palpitations sometimes reading the messages sent to the group from classmates at 3 am the day an assignment’s due, when they are in the uni library writing it. I just couldn’t leave it that late…but that’s the result of a decade of knowing if I don’t get work in on time, I don’t get paid, I suppose.

Talking of getting paid, I am going to have to get to grips with eking my student maintenance loan out a bit longer as the summer holidays are a bit difficult with no money from April until September! All my big ideas about reading the books I’ve accumulated over the summer and taking it easy have disappeared and I’ve spent the last two weeks scrounging old copywriting clients for extra work…

I absolutely LOVE being a mature student and I absolutely recommend doing it as an old fart. Why?

  1. At 47, I’m doing it because I really want to. I don’t feel I have to, and I’m not doing it to meet anyone else’s expectations. As a result, I’m putting the work in and getting good grades that I might not have managed as an immature 18-year old (which I was).
  2. I don’t get dragged into class arguments and politics. I hear about the falling outs and dramas, but I have no desire to get involved. And there’s NO chance of a university romance. The boys are all very sweet, but also young enough to have been born when I was in my thirties. Who do you think I am, Madonna?
  3. I’m experienced in the skills you learn at uni already. OK, so I might not have known why Liberal Humanism is a failed critical theory, or how to analyse poetry, but I can take a brief and write what a client wants — the same applies to writing an essay and making sure it covers everything the lecturer is looking for.
  4. It’s done wonders for my confidence. Not only have I passed the year, some of my first year grades were 70% plus — a first class degree grade. I nearly fainted. I also managed to prove to myself that I can do things I find really hard, when I managed to get my best mark of the year in Linguistics, a module I found really complicated, and not only that, it was in the exam. I was convinced I was probably going to drop a grade when I started the module, and remember telling people “As long as I pass, that’s all I care about.” Well, I damn well showed myself, didn’t I?

If you’ve ever wanted to study for a degree but you think you’re too old — just do it. I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Of course that's not my real name.

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