In Focus
Mar 11, 2024

Resilience and Reward: Mature Students Navigating Higher Education

Amélie McGowan navigates the highs and lows of the mature student experience in conversation with Ailish Smith and others.

Amélie McGowanDeputy Opinion Editor
Eavan McLoughlin for The University Times

Picture the average Trinity student. What do they look like? Was the first image that appeared in your mind a young student? Most people would answer yes. 

The population of mature students is small, and rarely represented. Approximately 10 per cent of each course is composed of mature students, but this varies from course to course.

Many students enter through Trinity’s Access Programmes, or TAP, and take a foundation year, called The Foundation Course, before beginning undergraduate courses offered at Trinity. Many of these programs provide support for mature students who either come from underprivileged backgrounds or have not experienced higher education. 


For Ailish Smith, the Access Programmes defined the beginning of her time in college: “If I hadn’t done the Access programmes, I would have dropped out within the first year. I wouldn’t be here today.” The Access Programmes extend beyond their foundation year, as Ailish continues to explain, and the programmes provide support for the students throughout their four years at school.

Rather than driven by obligation or societal expectations, as most younger students are, mature students enter college on their own volition. This creates different expectations, both in and after college, which inevitably leads to different outside pressures. “For me,” Smith explains, “It’s friends and family that are like ‘what are you going to do?’, and that’s pressure because you’re going, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’”

“It will just be a different journey than for a younger person,” says Smith. 

“In my early twenties, I didn’t care about studying all that much,” first year Valeriia Shmyrova explains, “I believe unfortunately my main goal was to have a good time, I would read sometimes just to get through the University.” Shmyrova’s attitude has changed since returning to school: “I study really hard, and apply myself because now I understand the necessity of higher education.”

Many mature students share one thing in common – the drive to learn. It is their decision to be here, to perhaps step outside of what many might call the ‘conventional’ career arc. 

Students such as John Morrissey have returned after a previous degree and lengthy career, but the fact remains the same: “The curiosity is why you’re here.” Morrissey explains, “You sit in lectures or other things and talk outside of the class [because you want to].”

No mature student’s motivation to join college is identical to another. Some arrive with little expectation, others with every expectation. Despite this, many mature students share the anxiety of graduating.“I think there are a lot of opportunities out there for me, even though I’m a mature student, but you have to be realistic,” Smith continues, “No matter what happens, I will get something out of it.

“It will just be a different journey than for a younger person”, says Smith.

Mature students experience many of the same things that younger students do – finding friend groups, struggling in classes and balancing home and college life. But there are barriers that are unique to mature students. 

“There’s a little bit of a loss” when it comes to communication, Morrissey explains, “and I think it’s felt more acutely by the mature students because this is sort of a barrier to communication. You’re in a world where everything is so easily communicated, but it’s actually not when you’re a mature student.” 

Social media is a pivotal platform of contact for younger students, a communication style that mature students are often left out of. “I find the social interaction very good, but it’s kind of despite the technology, rather than because of the technology”, continues Morrissey. 

Similarly, technology, combined with administrative truancy, creates other barriers on platforms such as Blackboard and Trinity’s website. “I had an absolute administrative nightmare for the first term last year”, Morrissey says. “I didn’t even know I was in tutorial groups for five or six weeks, subjects didn’t come up, emails didn’t come for weeks.” 

Technology is not the only thing making mature students feel separated. “For a lot of mature students, they find that it’s very hard being in a lecture room and you’re the only mature one”, says Smith, “when you’re dealing with 18 and 19 year olds, they’re coming in with the expectation of being around other young people. So I’m imagining when they see an older person, they’re like, ‘What are they doing here?’”

Relationships between younger and older generations are not all bad, according to most mature students. “It’s actually given me greater respect for younger people being here. It’s made me see even my own children in a different light”, Smith enthuses. After joining the Students’ Union, Smith has found a community of younger students. “You work with younger people all the time, and you see how passionate they are. They really care about all students no matter what their age or where they come from.”

But there is refuge, as many have found, in spaces such as the Mature Student Society. 

“You have somewhere to go”, says Smith “You have somebody to talk to.” Mature students can share their particular issues with those who understand them, over a cup of coffee. “You have people who are all from different backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common; we’re all mature students.”

Shmyrova echoes the same sentiment: “There is a place where we can share our problems and complain. They can understand.”

“There is definitely a sense of community among other mature students”, writes first year student Leanne Dennis.

The aftertaste of Trinity is positive for most mature students. “It’s been a very positive experience, it’s meeting exactly what I wanted it to do”, says Morrissey. 

“I just really enjoy being here”, agrees Smith, “Every day is a learning experience.” 

For both Smith and Dennis, coming to Trinity has been a confidence-boosting experience. “It helps you grow in confidence and you realize ‘I have these abilities that I didn’t think I had”, Smith argues. “I’ve had the time to realise this is exactly what I want to be doing,” says Dennis. 

For current and future mature students, “Avail of every service available. Raise your hand for help. Allow yourself to enjoy it”, advises Smith. 



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