I’ve been preparing all my life to discuss this topic — the changing of the guard — with FedPress transitioning to a new team and me transitioning to being a student again as a middle-aged woman in 2017. This is the 17th issue of the magazine and I was born on the 17th. So, I’m reflecting this year on the many changes that come with being an older student; what most readers would identify as the old guard, or perhaps the ancient guard because, if you dare to look on social media sites as a middle-aged person, you will quickly see that 30 is the new old.
So, for any readers pushing their mid-twenties … your fresh time is severely limited. And it tickles me to see that the criteria for joining the The Feds (Mature Age Student Club) is that you have to be 21. I now realise that even my first time around as a student I was technically mature age. So now I’m more Stone Age than Study Age. But that isn’t how I perceive myself. It feels great to be studying again.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines those between the ages of 35 and 64 as ‘Older Students’ and that’s where I fit. They reported that in 1999 about 5% of older men and about 6% of older women were studying . The Department of Education and Training has reported that over 115,000 people aged 40-59 years are involved in study from non-award and enabling courses to post-graduate programs.
With about a million students at all Australian universities and about 13,000 students at Fed Uni — well, the maths escapes me because I’m in a writing course, not a maths course — it seems likely there’s more than a few Older Students in Ballarat and, although we don’t tend to move around in visible packs, perhaps we should. Perhaps we shouldn’t be quietly trying to blend in, perhaps flitting in and out quietly in our often part-time way. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, so maybe we should be a bit louder and not worry about being the Older Student in the class; particularly if you’re an Older Woman Student. I’m pretty cosy in my comfortable writing course but I wonder how I’d go in welding?
I’m not embarrassed to be a product of the 20th century. It was good to me. In my previous student incarnation, my degree was almost free, topped off with a scholarship. And, in fact, I feel I only grasp tiny fragments of the century’s glory. It was over before I had time to get my head around much of it and I would gladly spend the rest of my life studiously catching up … but I’m sometimes being told to dump it and move forward; describe what new wonders I see with Google Glasses in 140 characters. My antidote to this trend is embarking on Cert IV in Professional Writing and Editing which is a wonderful immersion in words.
I don’t advocate millennial bashing or any kind of repudiation by age group. In fact I’ve always had the comfort of feeling sceptical about things like the generation gap, the cult of youth and the invisibility of the aging — until now; now that I’m well qualified to be the mother of most students at the TAFE campus with its own architectural mix of new and old.
Obviously, time weathers. It’s OK for buildings to weather. I enjoy being surrounded by our campus history and Ballarat trades liberally on its bluestone past. Television is crammed with lifestyle and history shows about the romantic nature of crumbling ruins and draughty, unplumbed monuments to feudalism. Love stories are more satisfying if they take place in rooms cavernous enough for a four poster bed if you ignore the subtext of women’s subjugation that this iconography conveys. Holidays are more enchanting if you can sleep in a quaintly crumbling B&B.
As a middle-aged student, you might be caring for elderly parents, holding down a day job, wondering what your superannuation will do next or hearing words from your GP like menopause, cholesterol or arthritis. I kid you not — life is far from over when you’re middle-aged. You might be divorced (where did the other half of my assets go?) or just wondering why you sometimes seem to be the only one in class who hasn’t missed one and always does the homework. Anyway, I’m a student again because I want to be and I’m enjoying it. It doesn’t really matter if I’m invisible because my goals are more internal. I’ve spent all my life getting to this Study Age and I’m enjoying it.
So what do I enjoy and what am I going to take away from going back to study? Well, in spite of the occasional, amusingly murderous thought about someone glued to their phone, I like being in a class of mixed ages. I’m with a lovely bunch with an affecting mix of ideas between younger and older ears. I’m only part-time and I wish I was there more. My writing course is a thrill. I’ve needed a purpose to kick me into doing it as a more creative pursuit and this course is generous with opportunity. As Susan (one of our teachers) said recently, we do a lot of work for our CYs. And it’s reminding me what I’m good at (and perhaps have taken for granted) and confronting me with what I’ve been reluctant to try. If I’m lucky, I might end up getting paid for writing something; perhaps turn it into work-from-home. I just see it as opening up possibilities, whether paid or just pleasure. The reasons for studying and going back to study are numerous but for me it comes down to the challenge and the fun. I really hope the younglings are enjoying it too but, if not, maybe they’ll love it the next go around because education is a continuing thing and obviously not just for the young. Maybe they’ll come back to find they’re the old guard, dazzled and exasperated by the delights of youth.
By Jennifer Pont