What it's like to be a "mature" student

Returning to uni at 29

Photo: Pexels

I am a Master’s student about to turn thirty — Happy birthday to me! — which makes me a “mature-age student. This is a context-dependent, melting pot designation: twenty-nine isn’t that old, but I still count as “mature” because I’m further along than expected of someone in higher education.[1]

My situation is quite clear-cut: after eight years away from university, I am back to full-time study. I have no children, dependents, or partner, but this doesn’t necessarily make my experience straightforward.

I’ve noticed small changes since I was last at university: gentle moments of disjointedness, like swapping Facebook for WhatsApp, bidding goodbye to paper syllabuses, or realizing that most of my classmates were born after the year 2000 (ouch).

Other aspects have proved more of a struggle. For starters, I feel as if I should have my life more “together” at this point, as if I should be more on top of things (studies show that mature students can feel insecure within institutions that assume they will “hit the ground running.” See here and here, as well as this study on ways the university can provide more support.) Then there’s loneliness, financial worries, and the pressure to get this “right” — whatever that means (it’s not about grades.)

Ultimately, this degree was not the “perfect” move, but I am proud of myself for taking the leap. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “The choice may have been mistaken / The choosing was not.” Besides, there’s a bright side to being “older.” I have much more confidence and acceptance toward myself, especially toward my body, than I did at eighteen or twenty-one. Though I still struggle with doubt, I dare to take up more space, speak up, and ask questions[2](stay tuned for a blog post on “chilly classrooms,” masculine default, and gendered participation, by the way.) Likewise, I feel more comfortable seeking out assistance and advice. Professors are there to help, it’s literally their job.

Photo: Pexels

Despite being proud of my decision, I sometimes feel like I'm lagging “behind,” especially when I look at other people my age (research suggests this is common among mature students.) Even though I know not to compare journeys, this can feel unsettling at times.

I think this is particularly true for someone from Belgium, where norms around “ideal” life biographies don’t exactly reflect my choices. I’ve come to think that Belgium suffers from a lack of vision and an almost surrealist complacency at the institutional level. The culture seems to want to quell, or at least discourage, curiosity, divergence, and risk-taking.

I want to be quite clear, though: I think that all dreams and ambitions are valid and that heroism and worth can be found everywhere. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to a more traditional trajectory, or with wanting to buy a “villa quatre façades” (a stand-alone house) on the outskirts of some large city or other.

What I find more disturbing is the feeling of oddity you experience when you deviate from this norm. I think it’s vital to have different discourses and narratives available to us. These allow us to make sense of our preferences and aspirations and should be normalised and promoted, or at least given equal value.

As far as studying goes, institutions themselves should challenge the idea that studenthood is young, white, middle-class, and male. This goes beyond widening access and entails allowing all students to develop identities as learners, so that the university comes to reflect its constituents.

Let’s move beyond an “ideal” path built upon a restrictive understanding of learning and education. As mature students navigate their way through an environment designed for young learners, they bring into focus the “normal” biographies we are invited to use as tracing paper for our life choices.

[1] There’s little study of younger mature-age students (students in their twenties and thirties). See this study.

[2] In fact, research shows that mature students will often try to tone down their enthusiasm, aware that it breaks tacit codes of conduct.