Surviving College as a Mature Student & Parent

By Mary Tynan, Head of Training, Childminding Ireland


I would like to share with you my story of going to college as a mature student, how it came about and how I made it through four years while juggling family life and my studies.

My formal education was completed in the mid-80s, a period of recession and unemployment in Ireland. Unlike many who were forced to emigrate at that time, I was fortunate to secure a job in the travel industry and remained with the same company for almost 25 years. Not so fortunate in the recession of 2008, the office which I managed for 20 years closed and for the first time in my life, I was unemployed.

While losing my job was a shock at the time and unexpected, it gave me the opportunity to consider a new career. Confident with the array of skills I had gained during my years in the travel industry, I believed I was very employable. Following a number of conversations with recruitment agents, I was soon to realise the emphasis employers place on college degrees. The experience and the skills and knowledge I had developed over my years of working would most likely be overlooked. Therefore, in order to increase my job opportunities, I began thinking about going to college.

I spoke to my family and friends and with their encouragement and advice, I collected a prospectus from my local college. Having spent a month reading through every possible option, I decided with the skills and experience I already possessed, Business and HR was the route I would like to take.

Following my registration as a fulltime student, I was invited to an interview. I remember being really anxious going to this interview and was worried I would not be accepted. I had no experience of interviews. I was successful in my first ever interview and therefore never had to attend another.

My next visit to the college was the induction day for mature students which gave me the opportunity to meet other students who were taking the same course. That was also the day I was issued with a student card. Totally unprepared, my ID photo as described by a friend resembled a “rabbit caught in the headlights”. This same photo remained with me for the duration of my college years and despite my horrendous image, it did not prevent me from availing of many student discounts over the years.

The first couple of weeks in college went by in a daze, meeting new people from all walks of life, finding my way around the college and most of all learning what seemed like a new language. I was exposed to so much new vocabulary, the Free Online Dictionary became my new best friend.

With so many students attending lectures, I was reluctant to ask questions for fear of making a fool of myself and therefore regularly left the class confused. I found two solutions to this problem, firstly I would sit in the front of the class and therefore was oblivious to those behind me and secondly I would look at numerous YouTube videos on the topic and found this a fantastic support.

Exam time quickly came around in that first year and I encountered my first assessments since my Leaving Certificate. In preparation, I brought my notes everywhere with me. I recall accompanying my mother to Knock just before the exams began. I strategically chose a seat at the back of the bus and as soon as the Rosary began (which was recited four times each way), I would take out my notes to read. Those around me soon became aware that I was studying for exams and their prayers were directed towards me….how could I fail?

The four years I spent in college were not without its challenges. I had two school going children, one who completed their Leaving Certificate the year I completed my final year. We became “study buddies! Just before I began my 2nd year at college, my mother was diagnosed with Cancer. I was devastated and almost gave up at that point. My mother was very proud of me and the commitment I had made and it was her encouragement that spurred me to keep going. In the weeks and months ahead, she entered a rigorous treatment programme. One of the happiest moments of my life was the day I graduated after four year with my honours degree and my mother sitting proudly in the audience.

I tried not to let college disrupt family life too much and therefore as soon as the college day ended, home life began. Once I dropped the children to school, I would then go to college and regardless of whether I had lectures or not, I would stay the entire day there getting my work done. In addition, I would often study late at night once the children had gone to bed. I didn’t engage too much with the social side of college however I did join the Gym and enjoyed those facilities while studying.

One of the most enjoyable weeks of the year for mature students was RAG week but not for the same reasons as the young students. While they were off doing whatever it is they do, we looked forward to a very quiet week in college getting lots of work done and enjoying peaceful breaks during the day.

The reason I decided to go to college was to increase my job options but I actually got a lot more than that from the whole experience. I was exposed to new topics, and my mind was open to new ideas. I learned lots of new skills which enriched the skills I already had from my previous career. It gave me self-confidence and most of all I really enjoyed it and had fun.

Here is my advice to anyone thinking of college:

1. Chat with your family - ensure you have buy in from those around you as you will need lots of support.
2. Take time to choose your course – read lots of information about the course content and if possible speak with someone who has already completed the course.
3. Surround yourself with supportive friends – particularly those who have gone to college and will help you along the way.
4. Be a role model for your children – my children saw how dedicated I was and I do believe this has had a great influence on them.
5. Manage your time – as a parent you will know all about time management. Take advantage of every quiet moment to complete college work and don’t leave anything until the last minute. My books travelled everywhere with me and even as I waited in the car for one of the children’s activities to finish, I would study.
6. Take one year a time. To ensure I hadn’t wasted my time, it was necessary to complete two years to receive a certificate. Only then did I decide to do a third year and finally a fourth. I was concerned if I had committed to four years at the very outset, I may have become overwhelmed.

I know lots of successful people who have never gone to college for whatever reason and it’s also fair to say college is not for everyone. But bear in mind had I been asked prior to losing my job would I go back to college, I can honestly say I would have laughed. Never say never!

I hope you enjoyed this piece and hopefully it will give you some inspiration and encouragement if you have found yourself thinking of making some changes in your life.