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Married and ‘Mature’: Life as an undergraduate at 28

Hannah Clifton describes her experience of balancing being a mature undergraduate, studying for a career change and planning a wedding.

It is the New Year, the essay deadline has been and gone, plus my gym attendance has improved dramatically.

There’s only one thing getting me down, I’m approaching my 28th birthday.

The mature student population is only 14% of Sussex University. Just before I reach the grand-old-age of 28 in my third year, I’d love to dispel some common myths about us mature undergraduates.

Firstly, it is often thought that mature students are a bit odd. Even though they don’t say it, the question I see twinkling behind some students eyes is, ‘why on earth are you here? You’re nearly 30!’

It’s assumed that people of my age have already got qualifications, three-bedroom houses and continuous promotions at work.  What on earth went wrong in our lives, then?

Friends my own age politely ask, ‘why did you go back?’ But mature students aren’t going back, we’ve not all been to university before, and even if we have, we’ve begun a new subject and so our belief is that we’re actually going forward.

“Even though they don’t say it, the question I see twinkling behind some students’ eyes is, ‘why on earth are you here? You’re nearly 30!’”

We are a diverse bunch. All of us have our own reasons for starting uni after 21 and stories to tell.

Although we are a minority group at Sussex, about a third of the UK student population are mature students and many like me are career changers. 

I decided to do a degree in international development after five years working in performing arts. I was employed by the Walt Disney Company and worked in Paris, Tokyo, Milan and Istanbul and I also travelled while working in Cruise ship family entertainment.

At 16, when I decided to pursue performing arts full time at college, I knew it wasn’t going to be a life long career.

You don’t get paid well, its unreliable and you struggle to maintain relationships due to the short-term overseas contracts. But at the time I wanted to see the world, get paid for something I had a passion for and have a lot of fun.

After being exposed to inequality in South East Asia and experiencing the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, I had a hunger to learn about international development.

Yes, I felt nervous about leaving a career I loved and embarking on a degree I didn’t feel so prepared for, and yes I felt daunted by the idea of university academia and much younger peers.

“Friends my own age politely ask, ‘why did you go back?’ But mature students aren’t going back, we’ve not all been to university before, and even if we have, we’ve begun a new subject and so out belief is that we’re actually going forward.”

But no, I did not feel as though I was taking a step backwards and don’t feel that way now either. I now want to travel down a new path, one that leads to a role within broadcast journalism.

A second claim made about us is that we offer “unique perspectives that are highly valued by fellow students” (Sussex University Website).

While that is very kind and encouraging and I am sure that is true in many cases, I felt extremely unconfident in seminars in my first year.

It had been a very long time since I was in a classroom, and I was daunted by the amount of reading expected and the complexity of the theories and concepts we were required to grasp.

Additionally, after having well formed opinions, it’s a humbling process having them challenged by people ten years younger than you!

Now that I’m in third year and have learnt considerably more about my subject than when I first arrived, I am much more confident when it comes to speaking up in class.

But please don’t assume that we all must feel super knowledgeable, sharp and witty just because we’re old compared to you. I am still intimidated by the young bilingual bright sparks who can argue me under the table!

Thirdly, we get told in the careers and employability centre, “employers like mature students because you already have work experience”. I have found that this is too much of a sweeping statement.

While some employers are happy to see evidence of any professional employment, the journalism schemes I am applying for only want to see a demonstration of relevant experience.

Career changers like me, can’t sit back and rely on our current CVs. On the contrary, we need to spend our weekends and holidays building up proof of an entirely new skill set in order to impress the particular employers we have in mind. We’re just as busy, if not busier than students that are under 21.

And on that note, while I may no-longer join the ‘ravers’ and clubbers on their alcohol fuelled all-nighters, I don’t sit at home knitting or watching wild life documentaries.

Throughout my second year I planned my wedding alongside my essays. Pinterest, bridal magazines and wedding fairs were the elements that filled my free time (alongside a work placement in radio).

It was probably the most chaotic and most expensive time of my life, but thanks to my husband, friends and family it was really exciting.

We pulled off an incredible marriage celebration, enjoyed a dream honeymoon and moved to a new house during the summer. I’m still getting used to being called ‘Mrs’ now I’m back at university though.

Lastly, despite being assured that “you’ll fit right in”, I still have fewer friends at University than I can count on one hand. 

Don’t worry, I’m not begging for sympathy. It is probably my own fault since I have found it much easier to form relationships with people my own age outside of university. Perhaps I haven’t put an adequate level of effort in.

“Throughout my second year I planned my wedding alongside my essays Pinterest, bridal magazines and weddding fairs were the elements that filled my free time (alongside a work placement in radio).”

However, most people seemed to make friends with their flat mates in freshers’ week and stuck with them. I didn’t share a student flat and so I struggled to get to know people.

After lectures, most people seemed to be going right back to bed. And even in societies, people had already formed their ‘BFFs’ with those that they lived with.

If there were more mature student events that continued after Freshers’ week I would have appreciated it.

It has to be said that overall I am extremely happy with my choice to start Sussex University in 2012. I have loved the challenge of getting to grips with a new subject and sharpening my writing, research, presentation and analytical skills.

It is a privilege to learn from knowledgeable professors and discuss complex topics with some fascinating students. Additionally, Sussex University’s green hilly campus isn’t exactly an unattractive place to learn!

I don’t want to put mature students off going to University; I just want to provide an honest account of my experience and appeal to other students and staff to not make assumptions about us.

Get to know us. Who knows, some of us might have done some pretty cool things out of academia!

Hannah Clifton

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