By Caoimhe Killeen
“Your years are like days after turning twenty-five, you still have time.” These are the words of Mairead Corrigan, a mature student in her first year studying English, IT and Psychology. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 is slowly chipping away at our formative years in college. But we also forget that first-time students only make up the vast majority and not the entirety of students on campus. There are those who are older, facing challenges such as trying to home school children while also logging into Blackboard on time and hand in assignments when due. Mature students are trying to adapt to this semester online like the rest of us. But in many ways, they have adopted a practical outlook to it all.
For Mairead, her route back to third-level education was through various Level five and six courses after having her two daughters. She did it all while keeping her goal of becoming a writer in the back of her mind.
She views it as the “backup plan for my big dream, and my big dream is that I want to be a writer. Everything has always been linked to publishing a book or a series of books. But you cannot just rely on one book. You need so many other things and you need to put yourself under pressure to make sure that you’re set and that you have something to fall back on.”
Outside of her studies, she runs a book podcast called “Raid Reads” with a related Instagram and Tiktok page as well as working as an intern for Galway-based publishing company Tribes Press.
Such responsibilities would keep anyone busy during a national lockdown. For the first lockdown last March before starting at NUIG, Mairead was kept busy in terms of her book and business-related projects alongside home-schooling her daughters. Yet, she emphasises that there is no shame for asking for help when feeling overwhelmed. Temporary school closures marked a return to home schooling for her daughters alongside university. Adding in a second online degree from the Open University in humanities meant her slightly falling behind in terms of the workload.
“That’s when I knew I had to bite the bullet, swallow my pride and ask for help” she recalls. “I had to state to lecturers that I was struggling. Because I wasn’t going to waste how hard I had worked to come here [to NUIG] in the first place and there’s a lot of stress that comes with this work.”
Luckily, her lecturers were empathetic as she noted they too were parents like herself in similar situations.
“A lot of them are also parents and so they understand the position that I’ve been in and have been very open.” Her own understanding also stems from her family and relatives working in education and seeing how hard they are working during the pandemic. “I know it’s hard for them as well as my sister is a teacher. So, I see her struggles in her trying to teach online and then other parents trying to teach at home like myself.”
Returning to college as a mature student during the pandemic has meant Mairead has found it easier to speak up and communicate with lecturers. But she does acknowledge that emailing and communicating with lecturers can be difficult for younger first-time students.
“It can be easier said than done and you don’t even realise you were anxious about those sorts of things until you get older” she states. But she also points out that “if you have an exam or assessment that you are not happy with, don’t be afraid to bring it up with them as they’re there for a reason. They want their students to do well.”
In fact, she also advises that younger students should ask the right questions for when they do speak up. “I was about a year in the first time before I realised, I was doing college the wrong way and I had to wait another year because I’d gotten the wrong information…you need to find out what the correct answer is, and you keep doing it your whole life, not just in university. Don’t just settle for one answer, always try and see if you can get more answers.”
In terms of advice to other mature students juggling parenthood like her, her answer is simple – do not listen to anybody else and ease back into it at your own pace.
“You’re under enough pressure and judgement. If you want to turn your life around, you can still manage it, even if you have children. You can still wait, focus on what you’re doing now, and have that plan in your head.”
Such an approach is a reminder for all of us to take a breather in uncertain times such as these and to remember that life will go on after this pandemic has passed.