The Mature Student; What It’s Like To Start University In Your Twenties

Twenty-four-year-old Alex Whiteman talks with other mature students to find out what life at Royal Holloway is like when you start it in your twenties.

So, a little background;

I came to Royal Holloway when I was twenty-three years old. I’d just left a five-year career in accountancy behind to study English Literature, and as I stood on the footsteps of the Founders building with a suitcase in each hand, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. How well would I fit in with everyone, being older than them?

See, here’s the thing about starting university in your twenties (for me, at least); at eighteen, it’s terrifying, new and unpredictable, but the one thing you can count on is that everyone is in the same boat. You jump straight out of sixth-form into the next stage of your blossoming career, and you keep your forward momentum going. For me, it felt like I hadn’t had that same momentum, like my life had been on pause for five years. And when you’re paused for that long, pressing play can feel pretty scary.

It’s not something I think about very often nowadays (mostly because I have far too many other things to be thinking about), but I do occasionally get anxious about the time I’ve supposedly lost. So, to that end, I asked a few other students in their twenties about their experience, including twenty-five-year-old Ryan Menzies, and two female mature students who wished to remain anonymous, aged twenty-one and twenty-three. Their responses gave me a lot more insight into the problems, anxieties, and even joys of being a mature student.

The first thing that everyone concurred on is possibly the least surprising revelation in history; going to uni is really scary! You’re leaving an environment you’re familiar with to live somewhere completely new, sharing your space with people who are just as out-of-place and clueless as you. Everyone reading this knows that fear, mature or otherwise. In fact, Ryan felt this strongly too, saying that “the only difficulty is going from your own space to a space that is shared by many others”. You don’t need to be twenty-five to get that.

I think there’s one key difference between mature students and so-called ‘normal’ students when they start university; the worry of whether or not you’ll fit in with people younger than you. Having spent years in an office where I was the youngest, suddenly becoming the oldest wasn’t easy. Our twenty-one-year-old friend felt the same, saying “when making new friends, I feel like people knowing your age makes them think differently of you”. How is your age going to affect people’s perception of you? Will they think less of you, or be intimidated? Will they think something went wrong? On the flip side, the twenty-three-year-old said “it always kind of worried me that being older is the only thing will remember about me, like I’d just be thought of in terms of my age rather than my personality”.
But here’s the thing my anonymous friends and I found out; no one really cares! People find it interesting, sure, but not to the point where they’d think of you any differently, any less of you. I was only asked “What went wrong?” once, and that was by some guy who I noticed always seemed to be talking to girls that looked VERY uncomfortable being there, so I’m not going to take it to heart. As Ryan puts it, “no one knew/cared how old I was, so I was treated the same. I met many fantastic people in societies and have met friends I will forever keep in touch with even if I am 4 years older than them.”

The other thing I noticed fairly quickly is that, even though there is an age gap, it doesn’t have much to do with ones ‘maturity’. I thought I’d stick out among students like Steve Buscemi, but it quickly became obvious that I fit in with them just as well as I did with my friends at home. I’ve had just as much fun with them as I have anyone else, and often received more helpful and insightful advice from them than I did from my supposedly more ‘mature’ friends. Our twenty-one-year old said “I actually forget the majority of the time that people are younger than me”, and with good reason! The only time I’m really able to tell the difference is when I go out (my tolerance is not what it used to be!). For me, it wasn’t too bad, but for others like Ryan, who “definitely felt out of place on nights out within the university”, and our twenty-three-year-old friend, who “would tend to avoid clubs and big events with other students”, it was less fun. However, she added that “this felt like more of a being-tired thing than a feeling-left-out thing”.

And I won’t lie to you, there are some major positives to being a mature student. For one, I’d already gone through the process of renting a house, so that made me VERY popular to live with. I’d lived away from home for a few years already, so while everyone else was working out how to live without their parents and how washing machines worked, I got used to the lifestyle pretty quickly. Our twenty-three-year-old said “for me, the weird bit wasn’t that I wasn’t living with parents, it was that the kitchen didn’t have a bloody oven!”, which is fair enough. Also, as much as I regret the time I had before uni, it wasn’t a total waste. As Ryan said, “It made me realise what I wanted to do, and I had learnt a really strong work ethic from the work I did.” If anything, those years taught us how important the uni experience was to us, and the kind of effort we’d need to put into it.

I think the biggest error I made when I came here was thinking too much about how the age gap makes me different from everyone else. But here’s what I’ve learned; as cliched as it is, age really is just a number. We grow and learn at our own rates, decide what we want from the future at different times. In a way, this seems pretty obvious; why would anyone care what I was doing before university, or for how long? How does that affect their lives in any way? The best any of us can do is put our energies into our degrees now, and enjoy the time that we’re here to do it. When you do it really has nothing to do with anything. And really, isn’t that the most mature way of looking at it?