Wednesday 20 March 2019

Why pressing pause before rushing into third level education can be a smart move

For the next generation of school leavers, pressing pause before rushing into third level education might be a smart move, writes Celine Naughton

Tough call: Maria Maguire dropped out of college the first time around, only to return when she was 40. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Tough call: Maria Maguire dropped out of college the first time around, only to return when she was 40. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Celine Naughton

It's generally accepted that the path from school to college is a direct one, but for some of the 55,000 secondary school graduates anxiously awaiting the results of the Leaving Cert next week, it might be worth considering a more circuitous route.

Their average age is 18, but with students having had little by way of life experience outside the classroom, would they do better by taking a year or more off before knuckling down to four years of study? They could travel, or do a Post Leaving Cert (PLC) course as a trial before committing to a full-on degree.

They could work and save for college, develop life skills not taught at school, discover what they like to do and explore new career options in the ever-changing world of work.

"If a student feels he/she is not quite ready for college, for whatever reason, it may be wise to defer for a year," says Catherine O'Connor, Education Consultant at Trinity College Dublin and author of Cracking the College Code - A Practical Guide to Making the Most of the First Year College Experience. "Peer pressure doesn't make that an easy choice, but sometimes it's best to leave the pack.

"However, there is no right or wrong age to start college, any more than there's a right age to get married. The key to getting the best experience is in choosing the right course and college to suit the individual student. You need a plan, and to make an informed choice, there needs to be a lot of conversation between parents and children.

"The social aspect is hugely important: 62pc of students say they find it difficult to fit in socially, particularly in the larger colleges. I encourage them to stick with it. The first semester is the most challenging, as that's when students realise they're largely left to their own devices.

Good advice: Catherine O’Connor
Good advice: Catherine O’Connor

"They have to manage their own time, attend lectures, study, meet different people and perhaps juggle a part-time job."

When Maria Maguire from Carlingford, Co Louth, first went to college at the age of 19, she took a part-time job in an off-licence - and later realised it was giving her more job satisfaction than her course work.

Three years into her art college degree, she realised the subject she'd chosen wasn't for her after all and she dropped out.

"It was a very hard decision, especially as my parents had supported me and there was only a year to go," she recalls. "However, I was enjoying the buzz of retail and meeting people, and I wanted art to remain in something I loved rather than something I had to do, so I decided to change direction."

Confidence boost: John Fortune deferred for a year
Confidence boost: John Fortune deferred for a year

She began a career in retail management, spending much of her 20s travelling the country in her job with a department store chain. That changed when her son Liam was born, and Maria found that being a new mum wasn't conducive to constant travel.

"For the next 13 years I drifted between Community Employment (CE) schemes and contract work - six months here, a year there," she says.

"I built up years of experience, but had no qualifications. When I turned 40 I thought, if I'm ever going to do something about that, now is the time. But I wanted more from college than just a qualification. I wanted stability and structure in my life."

She enrolled for a business and management degree at Dundalk IT and after three years was elected president of the Students' Union. She took this past year out to devote herself to that role, and has one more year to complete her honours degree, after which she hopes to work in the education sector, particularly student retention and recruitment.

From her personal experience, Maria sees no need for school leavers to rush into third level education. "As a mother, I'd like my son to do a PLC course after the Leaving as a stepping stone to college, to give himself a chance to see if he really likes the subject he's interested in," she says. "If you hate a subject, it's better to find out sooner rather than later.

"As president of the Students' Union, I try to make sure students are fully aware of all the supports available, and help them manage the transition to college life, which is very different from the school experience."

John Fortune from Wexford made the leap from school to college at 17 when he enrolled for business studies and Chinese in Waterford IT. After two years, it dawned on him that he'd be only 21 when he graduated.

He didn't want to be that young setting out into the world of full-time work, so he deferred for a year, during which he worked as Education Officer with the college's Students' Union.

"Starting college at 17 took me so far out of my comfort zone, it was sink or swim time and I decided to swim," says John. "I'm more confident and outgoing as a result, but I have no doubt that other students would have dropped out. The first year at college can be lonely for a 17-year-old. You miss out on the social aspect because your friends go out to bars and clubs, and you can't be part of that because you're under age.

"I advise others to wait until they're at least 18 or even older before starting college. Do a PLC course, or take a year out to discover yourself. Do something you enjoy, something you're passionate about, and you'll grow as a person. The ideal time to start college is not about age, it's about maturity."

Dubliner Pat Curran was more mature than most when he enrolled at the National College of Art and Design 10 years ago at the age of 51.

"I left school at 15 with no qualifications," he says. "I had a series of dead-end jobs over the years, but was largely unemployed, and then something happened that changed my life. My wife Breda and I had two grown-up children when she became pregnant with our son Luke after a gap of 18 years.

"It made me rethink everything. I did a CE course where an art teacher spotted some potential and encouraged me to apply for a year-long art and design portfolio course in Ballyfermot College. I got a place, but almost at the same time I was also offered a job as a support worker. I had a choice to make: take the offer of full-time employment for the first time in many years, or go to college.

"I was torn. In the end I followed my heart and chose college. The portfolio course led to me getting a place in the National College of Art and Design, through the Higher Education Access Route.

"I wouldn't have been mature enough at 18 to go to college, but at 51, I knuckled down, went to every seminar and did everything I was supposed to do. The first two years were hard, but I stuck with it. I'm not a quitter. Then in the third year it all came together for me. After the four-year degree course I did a two-year MA, and loved it."

Pat now paints in a studio in St Andrew's Community Centre, Rialto, run by the Common Ground community arts organisation. Inspired by images supplied by local residents, his paintings create a powerful social documentary of life in working class Dublin.

"I feel blessed to have found this occupation at such a late stage in my life," says Pat.

"It's given me a purpose, and made me realise that life is all about change. If anyone else is thinking of going to college, at any age, take my advice - you're never too old, it's not too late, and you can do it."

Irish Independent

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