Now or Never? Mature students reflect on the right time to study

Sandy Jones (second year BA hons. Museum and Heritage Studies) discusses the advantages and challenges of studying the history of art and design later in life, in conversation with two student colleagues.

Day trip to the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Summer 2012. Left to right: Jane, Sandy, Aurella Yussuf (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society), Marian and Thomas Cooper (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts).

One thing I hear a lot is ‘What’s it like studying later in life?’ To be honest, I was filled with trepidation when I started. I hadn’t written an essay for 30 years, let alone sat an exam and I am, well, older… (polite cough). But once you start attending lectures, get to know other students and realize that you have a team of brilliantly supportive tutors, the experience tips from being terrifying to exciting. It’s a bit like starting a new job, only better. Much better.

People decide to go back to higher education for all sorts of reasons. According to a recent study published in The Independent, mature students – that’s anyone over 21 – make up around a third of the UK’s student population. So what is it like to be a mature student studying the history of art and design at Brighton? I discussed this with fellow ‘matures’ and study buddies, Marian Chambers (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts) and Jane Allum (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society).

What was it that motivated you to apply for a place to study the history of art and design at Brighton?

J: I thought it was ‘now or never’. My sons had left home, my husband was about to row the Atlantic – we’d both taken a very early retirement. I worked in fashion early on and later restored houses and designed interiors, so the History of Art and Design programme appealed to me because it encompasses everything I’m interested in: dress history, design and architecture, interiors, objects and film.

M: I saw that the history of the English Country House was part of the course and that was it! I love interiors, textiles and gardens but wanted to know more about the social history and theory. I’ve always worked in admin but also dabbled in floristry and interior design. Also, Brighton is absolutely the right city to study art and design; it’s a creative city and there’s always something going on.

S: I’d been looking at the Museum and Heritage Studies course for a while and went to an open day to find out more. I’m a projects director in the design industry so this course presented me with an opportunity to understand the context to the industry I’ve worked in. Also, after 20+ years I wanted to change direction, but stay within a creative environment. I’ve always secretly wanted to work in a museum.

Did you do any preparation or courses before you started?

J: I wish I had arrived with better computer skills as I found the practical side of preparing a presentation hard in the beginning.

M: I did an Access course and this really helped. I learned how to learn again.

S: My work involves writing, planning and deadlines, and I found those skills useful in my approach to studying.

What are the more challenging aspects of studying as a mature student? And how is it rewarding?

J: The essays were challenging initially, but it’s about learning how to structure them. However, I have discovered that I love the detective aspect of research and uncovering the unique history of a particular art movement or object.

M: Essays, seminar presentations and some of the theoretical reading have been challenging. I’m learning how to construct detailed research in preparation for writing my dissertation next year, and I’m really enjoying it. I also like to share my learning with my family and friends – they say they are inspired by some of my stories and I love that.

S: I’m studying and working part time, and have a family so I have to be organized. Juggling work commitments can be stressful. What has surprised me is that I’m constantly discovering new things to be inspired by – I had a bit of a moment last year with the 1851 Great Exhibition; it became a complete obsession. This year the study of Postmodernism has another dimension to it – we three have actually lived through it, so there are unexpected benefits to studying later in life.

What are you hoping to do after your course?

M: My dream job would be to work at Petworth House, cleaning and restoring their art and objects when the house comes out of hibernation. I’m about to do a placement at Brighton and Hove Museum as part of the course, so I’m really looking forward to putting into practice what I’ve learnt so far.

J: I would like to continue studying or move into research.

S: I’d love to work in a museum as a curator or researcher.

What would you say to anyone thinking about going back to study?

M: Absolutely! 100% do it! It’s the best time of my life.

J: Be prepared to think about whether you need to do an Access course first.

S: Sounds obvious, but choose a subject that fascinates you. Going back to academic work is challenging and hard work but less so if you’re really interested in what you’re studying. Ask the university to put you in touch with a mature student so you can find out about how many hours you’ll need to study and the commitment you’ll need to make.

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