My 13 year gap year

Ian Huckle shares his experience of being a mature student

Let’s start with a little about me. I’m a mature student, about to start the second year of a part-time MA in International Relations.

Starting or returning to university as an older student can be more daunting than joining fresh from finishing A-levels. There are similarities between the two — worries about tuition fees and having enough money for study and resources. On top of all this you may have the worry of trying to run a household and working at the same time.

For older students there is a decent support network, not least from the two societies — SOAR and the Mature Students’ Society — that specifically cater for people like us. Being able to meet with and talk to people who are in a similar situation to you is something that really cannot be overstated. CfAP (the University’s Centre for Academic Practice) is another body that is well worth a look. When I started last year it almost 13 years since I last submitted an academic assignment, and I was determined to find a way to avoid the mistakes of the past. Being able to talk to someone about how I should structure an essay, who provided honest and impartial advice gave me a massive confidence boost.

I began my first degree in the late 1990s at an East Yorkshire establishment and in terms of resources available then compared to now, the two are worlds apart. It’s some time since I was last there but the difference in the availability in resources between the two is huge. Going into my first year this was one of my major concerns. On the rare occasions that the key textbooks were available in the library back then, they would be on a 2-hour short loan with a lengthy waiting list that meant I often had no alternative but to purchase them myself. I remember spending a small fortune in the University bookshop on academic resources only for them mysteriously be dropped from the reading list for the following year with no resale value.

A few minutes in the UN library dismissed these fears. In my experience there are multiple copies of the same key texts available for use, and a mixture of short and normal term loans. Purchasing books is now optional, rather than almost compulsory, and has eased the financial burden. The internet has also exploded in terms of resource availability, not only destroying the monopoly of the big bookstore chains, but also makes journal articles much more accessible. Again as a UN student many of these are available through the NELSON system at no cost to you.

Staff-wise I’ve found my lecturers and department to be extremely supportive and approachable. As older students many of the challenges we face are unique, but irrespective of your age, knowing that you can talk to someone is reassuring. The key here though is to make sure you approach people if you have problems at the earliest opportunity, if you feel it has the potential to affect you academically. This can be anything — illness, bereavement, the breakdown of a long-term relationship/marriage — but the sooner you let your faculty leader know, the better for you. It sounds clichéd but it’s true; nobody can help you if they don’t know about it. You won’t be the first person who has had difficulties and the teaching staff can help you deal with it if they’re aware. Don’t be afraid, you won’t be judged. University can be a difficult, lonely place if you’re struggling, but you don’t have to do this alone.