Rachel Kurtz: Durham University as a Mature Student

Rachel Kurtz, president and founder of the Durham University Mature Students’ Association, and final year Education with Psychology student, writes about experiencing Durham University as a mature student.

Can you tell us about yourself? Why did you decide to return to education?

My name is Rachel Kurtz. I am a mature student and mother to two grown up daughters. As a dancer and aerialist I have worked for many years with children, often in school settings and through this I became interested in Education. Troubled by how sedentary childhood has become in the West I decided to study Education with Psychology in the hope of increasing my understanding, influence and credibility. Once I have finished studying I hope to inspire more active teaching methods to be adopted in schools, either by writing or by securing a position of influence within the world of education.

imgID6051312 Durham University student Rachel Kurtz

Do you think there are any advantages of studying as mature student?

Definitely! As a mature student you are generally clearer about your motivation to study and likely to choose a subject you are interested in and already know something about. This makes it easier to prioritise your academic work and means you are likely to get more out of it. There is also the extra life experience, for example, when we were talking about Margaret Thatcher’s time as Education Minister and PM I had an advantage because I lived through it all, making it easier to remember, understand and contextualise new information. This kind of experience gives a richness to your academic writing that simply isn’t possible for those without it. Mature students tend to be less concerned about looking stupid or clever and therefore don’t mind asking questions when they don’t understand. This is why lecturers generally like having older students in their classes to contribute to discussions and enhance group dynamics.

There are also disadvantages that it is good to be aware of and prepare for. I think older brains tend to process more deeply but more slowly than younger ones. After almost a year of observing younger students general reluctance to participate in seminars, I was suddenly blown away by how much they knew when we came to revise. I think it may be a combination of quicker processing and having less superfluous knowledge cluttering up your head so you can focus on key information. There’s also the fact that for younger students education has always been very exam focussed, whereas older students may have been educated with a more liberal or progressive approach. In addition, personal and professional interest that contextualises knowledge may make it less easy to assess because it is related to real-world situations. In order to succeed you will need to be prepared to play the education game in order to show what you know. While it can be frustrating at times it is worth it in the long run and you will be growing and learning. There are lots of study guides and books available to help you organise your approach and you may want to read a few before you start your degree.

Once you balance the pros and cons I think there’s a great deal to be said for mature study and I’m pleased I came to education later in life as I think I would have wasted the opportunity when I was younger.

What has been your greatest challenge as a mature student, and how did you overcome it?

The most difficult thing was feeling like I didn’t belong. I think university is a time when people naturally question their identity, priorities and direction. It is a time when the future is hazy and anything seems possible. For older students who have already built lives and perhaps have had to release the idea that they had their future mapped out this can be disconcerting. Like many people who return to study later in life, I was going through a transitional phase internally, which is what drew me to study. I still had friends from my old life but I needed to find somewhere to fit in at University – people to talk to about my studies who understood what it was like. For livers in the colleges help with this but as a mature liver out I struggled with feelings of isolation for most of the first year.

Students tend to finish lectures and dash off immediately, with social activities centring around college and societies, both of which felt impenetrable to me. Even simple things were difficult, like working out lecturers’ expectations. I remember being given quite a difficult reading that we had to make notes on before a lecture and I spent hours writing in enormous detail only to find that many of the younger students hadn’t even bothered to read it because it wasn’t being assessed. While I’m sure I benefited from being more thorough, I could have prioritised work that had more weight. Had I been able to talk about assignments outside of lectures I might have been able to ascertain how much effort others were putting in and allocate time and effort more appropriately.

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Foundation Centre students in the lab.

The most difficult week was Induction week. A few people spoke to me because they felt sorry for me and a few because they felt lost themselves and needed a mother figure, but in the main I was avoided entirely as panicking teens tried too hard to be funny, beautiful, interesting, enthusiastic, clever, superior, friendly or just to hide until the dust settled. There was not one single event designed with mature students in mind and the information available was all based on the assumption of being a young student living in. Having started the week hopeful and excited, by the end I was unhappy and anxious and concerned I had made a very big mistake. I have been a performer for years and am fairly outgoing and emotionally robust, however after 6 days of repeatedly gathering my resilience to try yet another event designed with students my daughter’s age in mind, I was reduced to a sobbing mess, hiding until I felt calm enough to take the train home.

During the first year I had no one to eat lunch with or go for coffee with so I spent lots of time in the library. The younger students weren’t interested and I felt little affinity with them. Consequently I threw myself into my studies. It was pretty miserable but very productive as I got a first that year! I decided I couldn’t start second year knowing that there may be someone else feeling like I had during induction so I approached the union about starting a mature students’ organisation. This transformed my experience of university almost immediately by introducing me to other mature students and giving me the sense of belonging I had been craving.

Can you tell us more about the Mature Students Society?

MATSA is an association rather than a society as we have a representational function via the Union. This means we can propose motions to shape university policy with regard to mature students. Our aims are to connect, support and represent the needs of older students, however students of any age can join. Young livers out can face similar difficulties to older students with fitting in and often join in our events. We hold regular socials and do lots of work behind scenes setting up systems, raising awareness of mature student issues and improving communication. We have been quite ambitious and our success so far has been patchy but we are a growing and much needed organisation that is here to stay.

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Durham University Mature Students Association (MATSA)

We have an online Facebook community that has been an important first point of contact for some mature students in the weeks and months before they arrive, and is a good way for members to promote things they are doing and invite people to share events and activities with them. In addition to weekly socials, we have established an annual Christmas meal for members and their families that is a fabulous opportunity to socialise and celebrate together while sharing truly excellent food. With a full exec we expect to offer at least one large social event per term in 2015-16 and hope to extend and adapt our existing schedule of weekly socials to fit more people’s availability, incorporating more daytime and family oriented events.

Structurally we are working on improving our communication both within the exec, with members and with the university, colleges and union. We now have presidents in both Durham and Queen’s, as the needs of mature students differ between campuses. We are working to appoint mature students’ reps in every college so that each one has someone that mature students can go to who understands their needs and challenges. We are working on a Buddy Up system to start next year in which members will offer to accompany one another to society meetings for the first visit if they feel anxious about being the oldest person there.

Our biggest problem has been recruiting and keeping a full, committed exec. Mature students often have family and/or work obligations and are often more invested in their studies than many of the younger students. In addition they are more likely to live some distance from university and less able to attend evening events and meetings. Consequently there can be some reticence when it comes to volunteering to be on the exec. Lots of people want to benefit from the association but few are willing to step up and offer their time.

These were the very reasons I delayed starting up the association until the end of my first year, so I completely understand. Looking back I realise that first year would have been the best time for me to do it as the workload and expectations were lower and first year marks do not impact on your final degree. For anyone interested in getting involved, I would say that the benefits outweigh any negative impact, especially in Foundation or first year. There are roles that are more and less demanding and there is the option of sharing some roles if the workload seems too much, so if you’re interested please do get in touch – we really need your contribution and it’s a very fulfilling way of meeting people and making an important difference to university life.

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MATSA Social (2014/2015 term)

What advice would you give to someone who was anxious about returning to education as a mature student?

You have good reasons to be anxious but the rewards of studying are immense so don’t let it stop you. Instead try to identify where you feel you might have problems and plan for them in advance.

If the social side of things worries you then ask your college how they can support you and contact the union and MATSA. Postgraduates are offered membership of Ustinov College, which has no undergrads at all, therefore the demographic is older and there are more mature students. As an undergrad you will definitely be in the minority in your college. This and the diversity of mature student circumstances makes it quite difficult for colleges to know how best to support you and they may not have provision in place that caters for your needs. Nonetheless they are there to help and will do their best to enable you to get as much as you can from college life. It’s a good idea to approach them early on – before the start of the year if possible. If you have concerns and questions, see if you can meet with the member of staff responsible for welfare to discuss your situation and find out how they can support you. Each college is different and will find its own way to help. If you want opportunities to meet people closer to your own age ask if you can join the MCR (middle common room) instead of the JCR (junior common room). Ask what provision they have for mature students and ask them to put you in touch with other mature students in your college. Let people know the things you are concerned about so they can work out how best to help you.

If you’re worried about getting back into and keeping up with academic work ask your department and college if there are extra classes in academic skills that you might be able to access. My college regularly offered things like academic writing and speed-reading, for example. Try to keep up with reading and plan and prioritise your time.

For livers out travelling to University on public transport, practical issues such as storage of personal items and access to showering and changing facilities might be important. Your college is your first port of call but if they are unable to help keep trying and contact MATSA or the union to see what they can do.

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Mature students in the Durham University Business School

Mature students often face unique challenges, including juggling academic study with paid work, family and financial responsibilities. Is there any support from the University or Colleges?

If you’ve been working you may need to adjust to a significant drop in income. Working and studying is difficult and may well compromise your academic performance, so think carefully about balancing paid work with study. Talk to your lecturers – you may be able to negotiate extensions on assignments or submit formative work in draft or note form to spread the workload and ease the pressure. In addition to Student Loans, you may also have access to pots of money from the University. Local students on low incomes may be eligible for the Durham Grant and there are various other grants and funds available through colleges and the Union for pursuing development opportunities or dealing with financial hardship.

Partners and children will also find it difficult to adjust. There will be times when you will have to prioritise your work over them and you may need to call in a few favours in order to fulfil your family obligations. It might help to include those close to you in your University life as much as possible. MATSA and the MCRs offer family friendly events and partners are welcomed to formal college dinners. Well-behaved children are usually welcome in lectures if arrangements are made in advance and the Riverside café is a welcoming place for students and their friends and family to meet. Seeing you study is an excellent role model for your children and experiencing something of university life will help break down any barriers for them if they choose to study when they leave school.

There are times when family must come first and the university will do their best to help you manage your academic work if this happens. Talk to your academic advisor and your college. If extensions are not enough it may be possible to defer your studies until the following year or to change from full-time to part-time.

If at any time it all feels too much to manage you may find that some sessions with the University counselling service will help you prioritise and get things in perspective. The overall message is –  don’t think you have to manage everything on your own. As a mature student your needs may well be outside the norm but there will be someone who has been through something similar before and there are lots of places to ask for help.

You are about to embark on exciting and transformational experience! Getting this far is an achievement in itself, so well done! I wish you the very best over the coming months and years and hope you get everything you want and more from your time at Durham.

Good Luck!

Rachel

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