Mature Students in Focus: Rachel Sanders

I had the pleasure of meeting and teaching Rachel Sanders in her first and second year at Swansea and, impressed with her commitment and engagement with her course, her fellow students and the university, we sat down to have a chat about what it was like to be a mature student in the Department of Applied Linguistics at Swansea University.

What do you love about language and why did you want to study English language? 

Words. I love words. That’s why I originally trained as an actor. I wanted to study language because I wanted to delve even deeper into the nuts and bolts of it all. I wanted to discover what made it tick: how we understand and perceive it; how that changes from person to person, and how we can manipulate it to achieve our desires.

What were you doing before you came to university?

Lots of things. Originally, I trained and worked as an actor in London for many years, then I started teaching drama and eventually began teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in Italy. I went on to set up my own company teaching EFL in Italy through the medium of drama – it was great fun!  After 5 successful years with the business, I came home to look after family and ended up working in schools as a Teaching Assistant.

What made you decide to go ‘back to school’?

Working as a TA, I kept getting frustrated that I couldn’t progress onto a teaching role and earn a decent wage because drama college gave me a diploma rather than a degree and the requirements for teaching are that you have to have a degree to do a PGCE. So, I decided to come to university as a mature student and voila!

As a mature student what were your expectations of the return to university?

I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace; I hadn’t been in formal education for almost 15 years (even though I read voraciously as a habit). I expected to encounter hard work and time pressures but also an invitation into a whole new world of academia which I had wanted to be a part of for a long time.

What kinds of support can you get at university as a mature student?

There are many areas you can turn to for support. Firstly, there is your Mature Student PTO at the Student Union (I have filled this role for the past year, but the new PTO, Karen, looks like she is going to achieve some wonderful things!). Your Subject Rep is also a great person to talk to for anything course related. They can raise issues with management and lecturers and implement real change if you tell them the problems affecting you. As a mature student childcare issues can be a problem but discussions were had and lecture recordings were made available to assist people in need of this support and strain on their time and family comittments. There is also the Money Support Service, they are able to give lots of advice on areas such as childcare costs, bursaries and hardship funds, should you need them. Finally, I would suggest having regular contact with your personal tutor, they are there to help and always willing to listen to any concerns you may have.

What do you think being a mature student adds to the university experience – for you, for your fellow students?

For me personally, I am so glad that I came to university as a mature student rather than straight from school. I have more focus and determination now than I ever had at 18. Life has taught me a) what I really want to do with my life, b) what I really don’t want to do with my life, and c) how to work hard to get what I want. Thus, I am achieving things in university which I would have been too timid to even try when I was younger. This has helped others too as I have become deeply involved in student life here – I have been a subject rep and PTO for mature students, I have been a section editor for the student newspaper and am going to be lead editor of the paper next year. I have also (through the SPIN program and the help of the employability officer) worked on a research project during the holidays with one of our lecturers – Professor Lorenzo-Dus. This experience gave me valuable experience of work in an academic research team. All of these things I would not have had confidence to try at 18. Now I think: why not?

What courses are you taking and what interests you about them?

My most recent modules have included Psycholinguistics and Dialect studies. Psycholinguistics is fascinating and I am seriously looking at continuing my studies in this field after I finish my degree. It looks at the science of language in the brain, how we process and perceive language – everything I was interested in before I began. Dialect studies, I have to admit, is close to my heart as an actor. I have long been fascinated with accents, dialects and the sounds of English. In this module, we have been looking at language change, variation, and the methods used to study it – fascinating! I love learning something new every day.

What are you finding difficult about university life?

Time management can sometimes be an issue, but that is because I am always doing so much! As well as everything I have mentioned above, I work from home as an EFL teacher (my student loan barely covers my rent), I also have childcare responsibilities and all the normal (chaotic) things that family life brings with it. It is definitely an exercise in organization. My advice, buy a massive wall planner and write EVERYTHING down!

Regarding the degree, what would you advise mature students to do in preparation for student life at Swansea University?

Read as much as you can. Also, start allocating time for ‘study’ so you and your family can get used to this time being unavailable – it can take a while for everyone (including yourself) to adjust.

What are some interesting first year myths/mature student myths that you heard before you came – are they true?  

Mature students struggle because they haven’t been in school for a long time – it’s nonsense. The mature students on my course are among the top in the class, they are more committed and more driven than many other students because they know the consequence of not achieving and they understand how much they have to pay back on their loans!

If you could go back to your pre-university self, what advice would you give yourself about taking the steps to returning to education?

Do it sooner! Don’t listen to that voice which says you are not capable and don’t be afraid to try something new. I got in because I called up one day and asked. I had avoided it for so long because I thought I had to go through a long process and study preparation courses which I could not afford. It’s nonsense. If you have the drive and the capability, you can do whatever you want.

What do you want to do with your qualifications? What do you think they will provide you with?

My goals have now changed from teaching. I am enjoying studying so much that I want to continue! I am aiming to complete my Master’s and PhD and one day even become a lecturer – who knows? J

Any other comments?

Coming back to university is the best thing I have ever done. No experience is ever wasted. Just give it a go!


Rachel is also our Student Voices editor for the blog, so do contact her if you’d like to contribute!