It can seem the essence of simplicity if you’re thinking heading back to university as a mature-age student – enrol, study, make the grade and then get on with a life enhanced by a sense of achievement and an additional credential.
Whoa! Turns out it isn’t quite so cut and dried, as two British researchers discovered when they set out to survey the experiences and attitudes of students who returned to their books after extended periods in the workforce or raising families.
They first thing they found was a gender gap – not on campus but at home, with the nine female subjects in their 15-student sample reporting pressures they never expected from their partners.
“The dynamics and consequences of family disruption are different for male and female students,” the report concluded.
“Predictably, perhaps, women’s accounts suggest that the risks to family relationships posed by becoming a mature student are higher for them than for male students.”
Male students, according to researchers Arthur Baxter and Carolyn Britton, of the University of West England, generally found their partners prepared to take on additional responsibilities around the house and in their careers to make up income shortfalls.
And men? Well, they were an altogether different story when their partners sought to expand their educations and qualifications.
Extensive interviews with their female subjects were peppered with complaints that the men in their lives weren’t picking up the slack at home.
There was also a class angle to the friction on the home front. In some cases – though far from all – women complained that their efforts to better themselves prompted a resentful backlash if their male partner had never attended university.
One interview subject summed it up in just a few words, relating how her partner would snap “You’re not at university now!” whenever she spoke about her course work or used newly acquired words and terminology.
While Baxter and Britton concede their study focused on only a small sample, many of their female subjects’ experiences were so strikingly similar they could only be explained by an underlying sexism.
Women’s “different selves are separated geographically by a car ride”, the report observes.
At home, women are wives and mothers, making the journey to campus a door through which they move from kitchen-sink domesticity to a realm of the mind. Juggling those two identities was a challenge that added unexpected complications to the burden of course work – as if there weren’t enough of those already!
The University of Queensland tackles some of those potential obstacles with practical advice for all mature-age students, men and women alike.
“Making the choice to head back to study after a long break from the books can be a big and complex decision… it can be overwhelming in fact,” the university warns.
“If you’re not prepared, you can easily fall victim to the fears, worries and reservations that are in the back of your mind.”
Echoing the British researchers’ findings, a mature-age Business Studies grad, posting on the UofQ blog under the name of “Lisa”, warned against letting ambition trump the realities and pressures of day-to-day life at home and, quite likely, work as well.
It’s about the journey
“We set very high expectations for ourselves, wanting to have great marks and a solid study schedule while keeping our career and family life sailing along smoothly too,” she writes.
“Value your achievements, both big and small! Don’t judge your progress solely on the marks you receive for assignments.
“Instead, value what you have learned during the process of your degree and don’t, under any circumstances, judge yourself in comparison to the results of other students.
“Take the time to develop your self-confidence and resilience and use these skills to help you rebound from any study setbacks you may experience.”
The main goal of getting back into study after a long period of time is to learn and expand your life experiences, so never let worries overshadow the excitement of the journey.