Laura De Vivo
(BA Creative Writing)
When I think about my mother at my age, her desires, her perception of herself and where she fit in the world, it is a far cry from the choices I am making for myself and where my place is as I begin my slide towards fifty.
My choices in the mid-nineties in no way mirror those of most of my present-day counterparts. At the tender age of twenty-two my sleepless nights were the result of a teething baby, not the submission date for an essay.
I by no means regret my youthful decisions: opting for the “I’ll still be young when they’re off my hands” angle. Now that my responsibilities are off making lives of their own, I am free to refocus my attention on myself, armed with the maturity twenty-five years has given me. Re-entering a world I had long since left behind was a brave step. Sitting on the opposite side of the desk at forty-two was no easy adjustment (I had spent my working life as a teaching assistant) and remorse from not having tried harder at school plagued me. Little did I realise that the first day back as a student would set me on the path of rediscovery.
Two years later I was clutching two GCSE certificates and looking for the next thing to get my teeth into, my head already turned by the prospect of an A level. I found I had become addicted to learning. I was a sponge. I just couldn’t stop. Once the A level was in my arsenal, there came the next question: do I take a degree?
Friends and family asked, “why do you want to put yourself through that?”
But it wasn’t an act of self-flagellation, it was a question of ability: I was staring myself dead in the eye and laying down the gauntlet. Beyond a certain age it is all too easy not to question your standing in life, yet in a modern age where reinvention of oneself is widely accepted, I was free to be anything I wanted to be.
On the day the acceptance from NTU dropped into my inbox, a new feeling took over, one I hadn’t seen coming. I had a resounding, gut wrenching feeling of imposter syndrome. I mostly kept it to myself, embarrassed to shout from the rooftops about something that had taken me five years to achieve, and I had a strong feeling of parental guilt: one of my children was still in the education system. Was I stealing her thunder? Should I have stayed in my ‘mum box’?
However, with the full approval of my children, I attended the open day, feeling a whirlwind of emotions: I had the same trepidation some other students were displaying (or hiding), with one key difference: I looked like one of the parents. I walked across the Plaza on Clifton Campus, my heart pounding, faking confidence, and swallowing back my lunch. Had I bitten off more than I could chew this time?
Then, the first day arrived. A swarm of students filed into the Playhouse, me included, together with the only other mature student on my course. We listened to enthusiastic speakers, and I wondered what relevance this had for me. Could I have the things being offered to the younger students? But I’d come this far after all, so why not?
I am now at the end of my first term, and I have realised there is an advantage to attending university as a mature student. There is no shellshock from leaving home (we mostly study in our home city). There is no need to extrapolate ourselves from personal insecurity like some younger people must, or walk the unpredictable minefield of learning who we are for ourselves: that has long been established. We are not shackled by any of the potential burdens of youth. I feel liberated just to enjoy the experience of higher education.
According to UCAS, 40% of mature students are over thirty, proving that we have a thirst for learning beyond the conventional expectations for education. We have a great deal to offer with the wisdom of our years and experience, before returning to the workforce in a stronger position.
Joining university as a mature student isn’t like gatecrashing a party. There is a plethora of societies to get involved in, more than happy to accept the more mature, and there is a thriving community for us too. Age has not felt like a barrier at all! I’d be lying if I said all the trepidation had melted away, and of course I share many of the same concerns as every student. But university has not manifested into the monster I’d feared, and the technophobe in me has no need to struggle in digital ignorance either. I have found the library to be a great resource, along with lecturers and students who are more than happy to assist. Alongside the degree, there is an opportunity to learn a language – I am taking advanced Italian – and other skills that will future proof me and, I hope, make me the best-educated version of myself I can be.
I will graduate the year I turn fifty, giving myself an exceptional gift that I had never considered could be mine.