Is it Wise to Return to School as a Mature Student?

This is an essay by Ruth Kongaika.

After raising a family and watching as each of my children graduated from college, I resolved to get a diploma of my own. Straight out of high school, I secured a job that trained me in a skill, and one which I found enjoyable. Being the independent person that I am, I kept on working. My brother was in medical school, and I felt that I could not burden my parents with more expenses. I began taking one or two classes at a time at a nearby vocational school. Thirty years later, I finally got my bachelor’s degree in my fifties. What a jubilant day that was for me. Several of my grandchildren were there to watch me receive my diploma.

Who is considered a mature student?

Any one over the age of 25 is considered a mature student. Other similar terms that are used are nontraditional students, adult learners, or mature learners. Currently, the world’s oldest graduate was a Nola Ochs, a woman from Kansas, who graduated alongside her granddaughter.

Reasons for returning to school as a mature student.

Who would subject themselves willingly to homework, lectures and exams? Often individuals have taken time out from their education to have a family, see the world, serve in the military or a church mission, take care of ailing parents, or a myriad of other reasons. More recently, unexpected layoffs, and economical turmoil has forced more than a few individuals to give university a second look.

Other motives that may drive a person to return to school include: changing a career, personal ambitions, fulfillment of a dream, learning a new skill, improving an inborn talent, starting a business, or just learning to keep the cobwebs out by stimulating the mind.

One reason I wanted to get my degree was to be able to have intelligent conversations with my children. They were always telling me what they had learned in their university classes, and I often found it so interesting. My main reason for returning to school was to prove to myself that I could do it. I was a mediocre student in high school because I did not really apply myself. I knew I had it in me to get better grades. I also wanted to improve my knowledge and skills for personal and professional benefits.

Differences between regular and mature students

Perhaps the biggest difference in younger and more mature students today is their knowledge of the latest technology. I remember how apprehensive I was when I first started taking my courses. I taught myself how to use the computer, but was not sure if I was up to the level required to complete my assignments. Some classes required class discussions online, and I had to learn this skill.

At times I would not understand an abstract idea or not know how to use the appropriate technology, and would ask the student sitting next to me for help. Often they were willing to help me out, but a few of them changed seats the next time we met for class. I tried hard not to bother the younger set with my mental deficiencies, and would often save my questions for the professor.

I was older than many of my professors, but the majority of them were very polite, respectful and helpful. I think they knew I wasn’t there to play around, so they were generally eager to assist me.

Just walking in and seeing all the youthful faces was trepidation in itself. Often the teacher would ask us to separate into small groups to discuss the topic at hand. I felt a little awkward, not wanting to push my elderly self into a group that may not appreciate my life experiences. Many of the youthful students were there because someone else wanted them in school, and they were more interested in the social aspects of college life.

In one of my classes I got quite perturbed at the childishness of some students. The same ones would come and sit in the back of the room, and talk and laugh the whole time. The professor didn’t kick them out (although I wish he had), and I couldn’t concentrate with that nonsense. I would turn around and look at them, hoping they would notice my frustration, but it didn’t seem to phase them.

I was always amused at the students that would put their heads down on their desks and go sound to sleep. The professors usually ignored them, since the students (or their parents) were the ones paying dearly for their naps.

At one point, I decided to take an online course, thinking that was the way to deal with the impish actions of my classmates. However, I soon discovered that it was harder without personal interaction with the professors.

So, maturity is definitely a big difference between regular and mature students. Thus, the name!

Disadvantages to being a mature student

Often the mature students have more obligations. They may have to balance work, family, and school, with multiple pressures from each. Late-night study sessions can take a toll on you when you have to get up and perform at your job the next morning. Babies and little children don’t really care that you are taking classes, because they think that they should be the center of your world. Even spouses need to get on board, otherwise they may feel neglected when you cannot be there because of scholarly obligations.

Unlike the younger students, there are not so many other mature students to interact with. It is advantageous if you can find one of your peers at school to befriend. They can better understand where you are at in life. One thing I did not appreciate was when my classmates called me “madam,” but I guess they could have called me much worse!

The physical aspects of an older student may affect learning. The inability to see, hear, move freely, and keep up with assignments may be impaired and affect learning. Cognitive impairment and personality disorders can also affect a mature student’s ability to perform in college.

My biggest challenge in going to school, as a mature student, was getting over my phobia of tests. I would fret and worry before a test, and get myself into such a state, that I could not recall the facts I had studied so hard. I would read, reread, and review my books and notes until I had it all down. Then I had to force myself to take a break before the test, to watch a show or listen to some music. I learned that taking a bike ride or walk also helped. Once I got to the testing center, I would take a deep breath and then begin the exam. The more I took tests, the better I got at it. Then, of course, I would reward myself afterward with an ice cream cone or chocolate.

Advantages to being a mature student

Today’s educational system offers much more for the mature student compared to a decade ago.

Flexible schedules are offered, which include evening classes on campus and online. Some universities let you take classes at your own pace, rather than expecting you to complete a fixed number of credits in a semester.

There are grants and scholarships available for nontraditional students, and some institutions will even consider your work experiences and professional qualifications towards your degree.

Some employers are willing to send their employees to school to benefit their business, and pay for tuition and books. Also, educational expenses can be used as a tax break.

Mature students are not as intimidated by the teacher, since they are often their peers. They have usually gained confidence in their former interactions with others.

Because of life experiences, a golden ager can put the class material into context better than an overconfident inexperienced person.

Older students have had time to figure out what they really want out of life, and can choose a field of study that they are passionate about.

Another advantage to going to school later in life is that you can ask your kids to help you with your homework.

Is it worth the struggle to return to school?

Even though it was difficult to take care of our children, be supportive of my husband, work, and go to school, I feel it was well worth all the sacrifices I may have made. It definitely was not easy being the senior citizen in the group. I felt I had to validate myself to the other students as well as my professor. The sense of achievement I felt after reaching my goal is immeasurable. It was so fun to see the adoring faces of my grandchildren as I accepted their leis and balloons on my graduation day.

So, is it wise to return to school as a mature student? It definitely is if you have not quenched your desire for knowledge and college is a good match for you. There is so much more in this beautiful world to learn.

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Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at: http://hawaiianart.ning.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Collin Harvey.

4 Replies to “Is it Wise to Return to School as a Mature Student?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story, Ruth. When I was in university, I made one of my best friends to this day, a mature student who is older than my mother, but who is an amazing friend, and great to talk to.

  2. I was homeless and literally living under a bridge at 35 years old when I decided to go back to school. I’ve had a place to live and rewarding work to do ever since. I now have three college/university degrees and have begun a writing career. Thank you for this post!

  3. I was 30 when I decided to go back to college. What surprised me was how nervous I was about being a student again. To quell some of my angst, my husband got me a map of the campus and we spent the previous Saturday identifying which buildings my classes were in (along with the easiest route to get to each of them so I wouldn’t risk being late!). Since I wasn’t sure what the campus attire was, I decided to err on the side of formality and tap the same wardobe choices I’d worn during my prior employment as a legal secretary. Yes, you guessed it: I was not only better dressed than my peers but was also frequently mistaken as the instructor throughout that first day! It also surprised me to discover that some of my classmates were much older than I was, including a very endearing gentleman in his late 60’s who had decided to put his retirement leisure to smart use and major in communications. To anyone who has been contemplating going to college after years in the workforce, I think you’re likely to discover that you’re a better student than you were when you were younger because of the discipline involved in prioritizing tasks, meeting deadlines, making decisions and exercising good leadership.

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