“The fastest-growing segment of our matures are those aged 55-56, who are finally in a position to pursue their college dreams.”
Look around – between the frazzled 18 and 19-year-old first years fresh out of the Leaving Cert, still trying to find their footing and manage College life, and the 22-year-old fourth years who are now anxious to move on from Trinity and explore life beyond Front Square, you will see a frequently overlooked and undervalued population within the undergraduate community: the mature students.
According to Trinity’s website, “a mature student is any person over 23 years of age on the 1st of January in the year of application,” who is pursuing an undergraduate degree. With that being said, Catherine O’Brien, the Mature Student Project Officer, stated that “the fastest-growing segment of our matures are those aged 55-56, who are finally in a position to pursue their college dreams”. Trinity, in an effort to create a diverse student population, looks towards mature students as a valuable asset within the College community, as O’Brien highlights: “The perspectives and life experience that mature students bring are valued, and any lecturer will tell you that mature students enhance the discussion in the classroom – they are able to speak up, are organised, and committed.” For many “traditional” undergraduate students, the value of mature students is unfortunately lost in the hustle and bustle, as well as the exclusivity of the College social sphere.
When asked about what led her to Trinity, Rachel Merriman, a second year Sociology and Social Policy student, and the TCDSU Mature Student Officer, explained that she “had no intentions of coming back to College” after having played in a band from the age of 15 and moving to the US to pursue a professional music career. Eventually, when she moved back to Ireland in 2012, she enrolled in classes at an Adult Education Centre and was assigned a nursing course. Reflecting on the experience – her personal dislike for nursing, but the joy she found in being a student – Merriman said: “I knew that I always wanted to help people, but didn’t necessarily want to do it from the healthcare aspect, so that’s what led me to Sociology and Social Policy,” adding that, “throughout my life I always volunteered, and music and volunteering were the two things that I really enjoyed and was passionate about”. Social Policy and Sociology, she feels, have characteristics of and require skills derived from both of her passions.
As for her experience as a mature student, Merriman sees many positives in life at Trinity, such as her lecturers and classmates, but she points out that “Trinity as a whole is geared towards the typical student and not mature students,” arguing that this becomes “really evident with a lot of the supports that are available”. Merriman cites the fact that the late publication of class and exam schedules places enormous stress on parents and guardians who must organise childcare in a last-minute situation. Even for those who are able to secure childcare for the majority of the term, there are periods in the academic year where Trinity’s term may not line up with childcare. In her academic career thus far, Merriman has had to, on occasion, bring her children into College due to scheduling issues, in addition to having to miss lectures to tend to them. “They’re really small,” she explained, “they bring everything home”.
As for her experience socially at Trinity, Merriman expressed that it can be difficult. “I’ve made some really fantastic friends and that’s been great,” Merriman said, “but my leisure time, I integrate with my kids. I go to College, and then I go home and I have a family life as well.” Merriman distinguishes balancing a family life with college from what she describes as the typical student life: “Traditionally, it’s much more about building a social life as well as getting an education.”
“During a conversation with two mature students who have children, one traditional student said, unknowingly, that it would be ‘weird’ if anyone in college had kids.”
Nicole Bennett, a third year student, also in Sociology and Social Policy, had similar sentiments regarding how she felt within the student population at Trinity. “I certainly felt welcomed by the wonderful mature student community here at Trinity, but it wasn’t always that easy,” Bennett said. “Most of my younger classmates wouldn’t talk to me unless I talked to them, and then [the conversations] were purely about College.” For Bennett, it took joining the Mature Student Society to finally feel welcome at Trinity, as she was able to find other students who are in similar situations as herself. Society life, Bennett stated, “can be really tough to get involved with (…) as [younger students] look at you like you are their Mam or Dad”. At Trinity, Bennett has personally witnessed traditional students making comments that are potentially alienating for mature students. During a conversation with two mature students who have children, one traditional student said, unknowingly, that it would be “weird” if anyone in college had kids. For individuals who may already be apprehensive about returning to school, poor reception, alienating comments, and exclusive actions from the student body can be even more off-putting.
Prior attending Trinity, Bennett worked in a bank. She took a Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) course in Coláiste Dhúlaigh, but barely passed due to having to prioritise her job over her studies in light of the recession. Eventually, Bennett was employed by AIB, but was fired due to departmental over-hiring. “I then decided,” Bennett stated, “that I needed to go back to college, no matter what the cost, and finally put my education before everything else.” She took an access course at the Dublin Institute of Technology, and eventually landed at Trinity. “The journey was not easy,” said Bennett. “I was broke, literally, and I really struggled to make ends meet, but I am here now and in a much more comfortable position than when I started.” For students like Bennett and Merriman, who faced obstacles in their paths to Trinity, they continue to deal with the difficulties of a college that is logistically set up for traditional students.
“I appreciate that [mature students] are looking for different takeaways from Trinity to the straight-from-school brigade,” said Mark Selway, a first year in Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures, “but as the course progresses, I hope mature students are valued for their experiences, as this is what we bring to the university. It’s one thing to ignore us if we’re boring and irrelevant,” Selway joked, “but a great pity if you don’t ask because you think you’re keeping us awake.” Selway described his path to Trinity, beginning with when he left school, “with grades [he’d] rather not draw attention to. He moved to South East Asia for 18 months. He worked in a refugee camp in Thailand with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a year, and then went into the military. After working in the military full time up until 1997, and on a seasonal basis until last September, Selway found this past Michaelmas term to be the perfect time for him to return to his studies. “I married an Irish woman in 1999 and have four children; I have tried to organise my life around being with them,” he explained, citing his children, and the fact that they are currently living in Dublin for school, as another part of his rationale for returning to his studies and pursuing them specifically at Trinity. In between his travels and his career, Selway explained that he also found time to set up and run a polo school at his farm in Cork. There, Selway bred and trained polo ponies, while he also played polo professionally in the UK and Europe over the summers. “I’m getting a bit old for that now,” Selway added, “so it’s a good time to hand the horses to the children and pick up my education where I left it in 1982.” When asked where he hopes his degree might take him, Selway responded: “I’m not sure what I’ll do after this, but I am hoping it will be something interesting, somewhere dry.”
“Trinity as a whole is geared towards the typical student and not mature students.”
“Trinity as a whole is geared towards the typical student and not mature students.”
For younger mature students, who are closer in age to the traditional student, the experience at Trinity is very different. First year Geoscience and Geography student Eanna McAtamney has managed to get involved with the typical student body at Trinity through societies like Joly Soc, despite spending his first term trying to get back into the swing of his studies. McAtamney’s path to Trinity included spending ten years as chef. He travelled the world, and spent time in Australia, London, and Bali, among other places. Eventually, McAtamney realised that he either had to start his own restaurant or go back to school. In a position where he could not feasibly establish a restaurant, McAtamney decided to commit to his interest in oceans, ending up as a Geoscience and Geography student. Much like any first year student, McAtamney does not know what he wants to do after college and often changes his mind.
Similar to McAtamney, European Studies student Peter O’Gorman came from a career where he decided that college was the necessary next step. After quitting school at 17, O’Gorman worked miscellaneous jobs until he began working in the civil service at 19. From 2009 until 2013, O’Gorman stepped away from the civil service and worked in Italy, teaching English and translating. “I had a successful career,” O’Gorman said, “and [college] was just something that I had been avoiding for a long time. I had justified avoiding it by saying telling myself, ‘oh well, I’m successful, I have a career and all of that.’” After reaching a point in his career in the civil service where he realised he needed to go back to school, he pursued the UCD access program in 2015, with the intention of working part-time and going to UCD. Shortly after, he was promoted at work and was no longer able commit to pursuing his education and his career simultaneously. Eventually, he decided to quit his job and fully commit to going back to college. When asked about his course selection, O’Gorman said: “I chose European Studies specifically with one eye on going back to college and learning stuff that is interesting, and the other eye on my career and future.” In terms of his own personal engagement with the traditional student body, O’Gorman explained that he does not find himself going on nights out but at this point, that part of college life does not necessarily appeal to him. “I feel as engaged [in the Trinity community] as I want to be. I don’t feel as though I’m not engaged.”