Mature Students in Focus: Neil Roberts

As a forty-seven year old first year undergraduate I’ve been reflecting on life. Well, more accurately I’ve been thinking about how life can be condensed down to a small series of pivotal decisions made at seminal points in our lives.  Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, the decisions we make during these times launch us in new directions, often down paths we never even knew existed and occasionally—at the risk of sounding overly melodramatic—our lives are changed forever.

I’ve been fortunate enough (or unfortunate, depending on who you ask) to have had two of these life-changing moments in the last two years.

One Friday evening, in November 2015, I was feeling quite sorry for myself, sat cramped on a small plane making my weekly commute home from Edinburgh to Cardiff.  I had no real reason to feel sorry for myself; I was the Chief Executive of a voluntary sector membership organisation, splitting my time between our offices in Bristol and Edinburgh and trying my best to influence government policy to provide relevant services for the member organisations. I’d done this sort of work for many years. I’d always felt I wanted to “make a difference” and thought controlling multi-million pound budgets and directing the energy of hundreds of people was the best way to go about it.

It took less than the duration of the one hour flight for me to decide that I wanted change. I wanted to interact with people face-to-face and not be so removed, behind my desk, affecting change from a distance. Little did I know how much my life would change in the next twelve months.

Track forward a year to November 2016 and I was set to have the second life changing moment. I’d already quit my job, taken the Cambridge CELTA at Swansea University, spent three months in Northern India teaching English to Tibetan exiles and there I was; sat on a hillside, ten miles outside of Kathmandu in Nepal, looking at the Buddhist monastery I now called ‘home’.


I was the monastery’s English teacher. I was surprised to discover Tibetan Buddhist monks are very keen learners; they view learning as a duty. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, issued an edict for academically able monks to learn European languages as he intended to send the brightest to Western universities to learn sciences. At first this seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but H.H. believes that science will help further understanding of the more esoteric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism – and, quite frankly, who am I to argue?

Sat on my hillside, watching life in the sleepy valley below, rather than feeling like I was living the dream, I was troubled by the fact that I felt I needed more training. The monks and all my future students deserved the best version of me. I already knew that Swansea University offered the English Language and TESOL degree and had a very good international reputation. The decision was made, I was going back to the UK.

Another year has passed and as 2017 draws to a close I’m just finishing up the first teaching block of my degree programme. I’m not the University’s oldest undergraduate (that had been a worry and in fact the whole age issue is irrelevant – it doesn’t matter!)  I’m still teaching online and my teaching practice is improving as each week goes by. Sure, there are some things I hear in lectures and seminars that I already know from previous training, or life experience, but having them revalidated and refreshed is a great experience.

So, I’ve told you my (rather convoluted) journey. If you’re sat there reading this, having had an epiphany of your own but still thinking that you’re ‘too old’, or wondering ‘will I cope’, take it from me — no you’re not and yes, you will. I’ll be fifty when I graduate, confident the next twenty or thirty years will be the best yet. I’ll tell you what I tell my English students: be brave!