Benefits and challenges for mature students at Lucy Cavendish

by Charlotte Fiehn on 19 January 2017


New Year is the time for resolutions – making them and, with any luck, sticking to them. Well, if one of your resolutions or, opening things up a bit, one of your aspirations is to go back to school, let me tell you now is the time to start thinking about making it a reality.

I went back to school three years ago now after finishing my A-levels in 2004. I started out taking classes at a local community college in Pennsylvania, with the sole purpose of preparing an application for the University of Cambridge. You see, I had decided in about 2006, around about the time my son was born, that I wanted to go to Cambridge. Going to college has always been an aspiration of mine. I don’t think I ever considered not going to college or, to put it another way, that I never would. But I’m also convinced (even today) that a university degree shouldn’t just be about bolstering your CV. Sure, it helps to have a degree in the current job market. You might even say it’s essential. But there is so much more to it. Education, in the words of Miss Jean Brodie, should be a drawing out, a process that helps you discover more about who you are and how you can connect to the world.

The other thing I realized in 2006 was that my personal tutor and history teacher in Sixth Form was spot on. She said to me once, after reading a draft of the personal statement I was using to apply to colleges in the US, that Cambridge would be perfect for me. At the time, all I said was, ‘please don’t say that to my mum,’ but fast-forward a couple of years and my reasons for wanting to study in the US were no longer relevant. Suddenly, the idea of concentrating on English literature was hugely appealing.

That’s when I started to seriously think about Cambridge. After all, if, as I always believed, I was going to go to college and I was going to go because I really wanted to, why not also aim for the very best?

So I started researching how you apply to Cambridge and, during that process, I started looking at different colleges. Because I am single parent with two kids, one of my priorities was finding a college that had family accommodation and as many resources as possible that would help my situation.

Enter Lucy Cavendish.

The more I read about Lucy, the more convinced I was that it was absolutely the place I wanted to be. Not only did I love the backstory about how the college was founded, the ‘please walk on the grass’ mentality helped me overcome one of my lingering reservations about Cambridge, ignited in a rereading of Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. Once I’d decided on Lucy, I set about writing an email to what is effectively the front office and admissions team combined. I told them about my A-levels, about my writing work, and how I wanted to study at Cambridge and, specifically, at Lucy.

The response I received from the absolutely stellar Gaby Jones, was that I should work on getting another qualification – a post-secondary qualification in the UK or a couple of college credits in the US. Other than that, she said, it was just a question of applying when I was ready.

So I started classes at a local community college and, before you know it, I ended up doing the equivalent (in credits) of an Associate Degree.

I am now almost halfway through the Cambridge degree as a mature student and firmly settled into life at Lucy with my kids in tow. Being a student is still demanding, particularly when you factor in adult responsibilities like children or a job, a whole variety of financial burdens that come with being independent. Factor in that you’ve probably forgotten how to be a student and you soon realize that you are facing a substantial challenge.

The good news is that being a mature student has a lot of advantages, especially when you are in an environment that supports you as well as Lucy’s does.

First of all, you have experience and that counts for a great deal. You can use your experience to give yourself an advantage on particular assignments. Sometimes you will find that you have specialist knowledge on a given subject that helps you bolster an argument or understand a problem more easily. Sometimes experience affords you a unique perspective.

If, as most mature students do, you have experience in the workplace, you are probably also very good at being efficient and focused when you need to be. Don’t underestimate the advantages of this, either.

I know from working as a freelance writer for many years that I work well under pressure and that sometimes I need to let an idea sit and percolate before I actually attempt to write it out. Experience means that I know myself and my work habits pretty well by now and I have put this knowledge to work to help me manage a hectic school schedule.

Second of all, as a mature student, you have, I think, a whole different perspective on time. I have found this to be the case several times when talking to careers guidance counselors and fellow students. When I started at Cambridge, for instance, everyone was saying that three years as a long time. I looked at them like they were crazy and insisted that actually three years was no time at all. It flies by because…well, tempus fugit and all that.

Because I have a different perspective on time, though, I think that has also made me rather more focused and anxious about exams and other assignments. I don’t think for a second that I have a whole other year to work things out, to find myself and figure it out. Because I have kids, I am already thinking ahead, figuring out what I need to do once I graduate, what I need to have done to make sure that I have somewhere to go and something to do. That also translates into a focus on exams. Yes, there are times when I have been unnecessarily anxious about them, because they count for a lot in the course I am taking, but I hope that some of the anxiety will convert into motivation to prepare well and prepare early. Perhaps earlier than those who don’t have so much riding on the outcome of their degree.

Third of all, mature students, I think, are rather better at being grown up than traditional students. We’re used to living on our own, managing bills, responding to emails in a timely fashion, managing schedules, juggling responsibilities. I think things like basic DIY and home maintenance are even just second nature now, whereas, when I was eighteen, there is no way I would have figured out things like cleaning and grocery shopping so effectively as I do now. How much time do I save because of this? No idea, but I bet it is not an insubstantial amount.

So, now that we’ve run through some of the benefits, what about the drawbacks? Well, I think the biggest challenge of being a mature student is that you are probably out of practice at being a student – and I don’t mean in terms of learning. Being a student is about accepting that your teacher/professor/supervisor has a certain amount of authority by virtue of their education, rather than just their experience. There are times when their experience may not match up to yours or you may just find that you have the same experience and that makes you feel on par.

A couple of times, while studying in the US, I felt my experiences in the real world were being overlooked in the classroom. I am thinking, in particular, of a creative writing class that I took, in which the instructor decided to spend a whole lesson on query letters and laying out manuscripts. I was not only bored stiff, I was irritated to be treated as just another student when I knew I had read the same books and I had probably prepared a comparable number of manuscripts. Of course, the professor didn’t necessarily know about my experience, but then I also found it irritating that he never asked. No doubt, most mature students have similar experiences at some point in their journey – less so at Cambridge, I promise!

But looking back on this experience there was a lesson to learn relevant to all mature students: I was both wrong and right to be bored and irritated. The instructor was also wrong and right to proceed as he did and teach the class. He was wrong to ignore the possibility that any of his students had experience with query letter and manuscripts but he was right to teach a class on the topic. I was right to be bored because I didn’t learn anything, but I was wrong, too, because I could probably have found a way to take ownership of the situation (and my experience) and put it to work.

Another more general solution to this problem, I think, is to keep in mind that being a student at Cambridge or anywhere else is not a permanent position for you. It’s not permanent even during the course of a given day. You can take off the undergraduate/graduate/post-graduate student cap and don another when you need to be a grown up, and you can celebrate, in such instances, all the reasons why you are lucky to be mature and a student. (At Lucy Cavendish, you have a lot of opportunities to realize this and celebrate it – more so than in most places, I think, because it is a college exclusively for women over 21).

Take a breath and realize that being a student is a decision and a great one and you can (and should) choose to be a student all of your life, one way or another. You can spend your whole life learning if you keep yourself open to it and you can learn much more what any one person sets out to teach you.

Finally, I think the other major challenge of being a mature student is that you do tend to be wrapped up in thinking ahead. I mentioned this as an advantage earlier, and it is that also. But you have to be able to immerse yourself in the university experience, too, especially if you come to Cambridge.

I have, to an extent, let go of my anxieties about what is going to happen after I finish my degree here. I’m still planning, I’m still taking steps, for instance, by preparing to apply to grad schools, but I am also trying to enjoy every moment of my time at Cambridge (and at Lucy specifically), every supervision, every lecture, every minute in the libraries.

The environment at Lucy has been a big part of what’s made my current comfort level possible, too. More so than at any other place I’ve student or thought about studying, I know Lucy supports mature students like me and goes out of its way to recognize how experience fits into the complicated mix of an education. Lucy is also sufficiently on the edge of Cambridge that you have a perfect balance between being part of the main university and having the space you need to escape (or entirely avoid) the sometimes crazy antics of your more typical undergraduates. Though that’s not to say you can’t join in if you want to!

I was asked to say something about what I’ve learned here that I probably won’t have anywhere else, and I supposed the most important lesson, particularly given the outcome of the recent US elections, is that there are places and people out there who care about and recognize the value of education and the reasons women, in particular, might still find it difficult to access the very best educational opportunities for which they are qualified.

Cambridge is, without doubt, the very best and Lucy is the perfect way into a gloriously exclusive world of academic excellence.

Final words for all those reading this and considering going back to school, for those applying or thinking about applying to Lucy…let this be your mantra:

"It is never too late to be what you might have been."

– George Eliot.

This blog was adapted from a post named 'Thoughts on being a mature student' which originally appeared on Charlotte's blog site here.