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Mary Feely: More mature students? Great -- take it from this one-time college waster

So our universities are being mobbed by record numbers of mature students applying for places. Great -- that means some actual learning will take place.

Having been a third-level student three times over, I'm convinced higher education is wasted on the young. They're in lecture halls because they have to be, assuming they've bothered to fall out of bed at all.

Mature students, by contrast, are there by choice. And as a result of organising their lives with military precision so that they can somehow be present, eagerly taking notes, while also holding down a job or even raising a family.

For lecturers, this is the best bonus ever. Forget the blank silence that comes from addressing questions to a room of people who are trying to sneak a look at their text messages. Instead, lecturers can expect informed discussion from students who -- gasp! -- have read the material and given it thought.

And believe me, I know what I'm talking about.

My first foray into third level was as a traditional full-time student. Like all my peers, I completely rejected the notion that I should work at my studies.

Sure, hadn't we survived the Leaving Cert? What more did they want from us?

I had no responsibilities other than getting myself to class each day, but I didn't manage it very often. Not when there was coffee to be drunk, debates to be held and demonstrations to be staged.

Academic effort? I showed more in junior infants.

Second time around was a part-time degree I did in an American university while also working, running a home, planning a wedding, falling pregnant and raising my baby. (Luckily, the child was born obligingly late, after that year's exams.)

I got top marks because I studied hard. If I'd wanted to doss, I'd have stayed home instead of forking out thousands of dollars in fees.

Plus, I was inspired by the example of classmates such as the pregnant woman who felt the first contractions during an exam in environmental anthropology. Guessing that it would be hours before her child was born, she carried on writing. Bravo!

Manage

Another classmate gave birth during term but continued on track. She explained that she did her reading during the night, while feeding her baby. "If your education is important to you, you'll manage," she said.

Indeed.

Next, I did a full-time master's degree while minding a three-year-old and enduring a horrendous pregnancy that had me puking round the clock.

At the end of the academic year, when it was time to hand in a thesis, I couldn't help noticing that I was the first to do so. Had I been a traditional student, I know I would have been sprinting to the office at the last second.

It's a struggle for mature students to fit their studies into a life that's already full of responsibility. That means they have to be motivated, hard-working and superbly well organised.

Just the competition our traditional students need.


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