It’s never too late to be a student again

A mature student discusses her experiences at university

A mature student discusses her experiences at university

Sarah Payne, 56, is currently in her final year of a BA(Hons) in Interior Architecture at the University of the West of England as a mature student. From Chippenham, a small village in southern England, she talks about her reasons for studying later in life and what has changed.

Sarah got her first taste of student life in 1984 when she went to Kingston University to study Applied Physics, Microelectronics and Computing. She unfortunately developed a form of cancer called Hodgkins lymphoma that forced her to leave.

She recovered and began studying a BSc(Hons) in Architecture at Bath University in 1990. Sarah soon left university once more, “To get married to a farmer that ended up not wanting to marry me” she quips.

Sarah decided to return to university once more to carry on learning and increase her knowledge of the construction industry, something that has been a lifelong interest of hers.

The current cohort of her course are in their early twenties, giving a 30 year age gap. Sarah says their happiness and can-do attitude is the best part of her university experience. She has been largely welcomed by the younger students, but notes that there are a few immature members who can be vindictive and behave inappropriately.

“The goal is to use the knowledge I have gained to help me develop and build a house for my parents that is really accessible” says Sarah, looking up from her dissertation on disabled home design.

Sarah sits turned away from a laptop. She is wearing black circular glasses with untied shoulder-length blonde hair
Sarah hard at work

There are challenges she faces, notably due to her limited software skills as she is not familiar with the technology used. Being older, the speed at which you can process knowledge is a little slower than it used to be, something Sarah says can cause issues.

Despite this, there are many benefits Sarah sees to studying as a mature student. For women in particular, hormone levels are more balanced later in life meaning that emotions are easier to control. Sarah also notes that many of her classmates are having relationship problems. “My life has already been determined, I’m not looking for a life partner” she says, “which means I can focus more on the course without getting distracted.”

Sarah doesn’t think that university is easier as a mature student in all respects. There are many challenges she faces, notably the lack of IT knowledge that is so intuitive to her younger peers, even down to things like double clicking to open a file. Sarah says that going to university has helped massively with her IT knowledge, “before I went I couldn’t even send an email, now I’m using programmes like AutoCAD and pdf files.”

Something she has noted is the incredible information processing skills that her classmates have, and thinks that the rise of AI will make this go even further.

In May 2019 Bristol Live reported that UWE began offering happiness course for its students, to come into effect in September 2020. These courses account for 20 of 120 credits for the first year, and teach students realistic practices to live a more fulfilling life. The course is open to all students and comprises a weekly one hour lecture and a group “happiness hub” meeting.

Sarah says that the staff are fantastically inclusive and the SU offers lots of help from student advisors, a service she wishes she had made more use of.

When asked if there was anything she would do differently Sarah said she would familiarise herself more with university protocols, as there are many ways to get extensions on work. These options include self-certification and options for late submission due to family commitments without marks being capped at 40%.

Sarah’s experience has been markedly positive, but she does have some words of advice to all younger students – “be kind to old people, you will be old too one day!”

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