Volume 94, Issue 54

Tuesday, December 5, 2000


The never-ending thirst for knowledge - Lifelong learning students

A positive experience

The never-ending thirst for knowledge - Lifelong learning students

By Leena Kamat
Gazette Staff

Coming to university straight from high school is hard. Getting used to lectures and the increased workload is difficult. Imagine dealing with all of that, plus having young children and other family responsibilities.

While the majority of Western undergraduates do not have to face such difficulties, there are some who do. You have seen them in your classes. The student who is a few or many years older than the average undergraduate, the one who is not here straight from high school.

Western is home to over 1,500 lifelong learning students, a term which includes mature students, transfer students, certificate students, and distance education students, said Joan Forder, University Students' Council Lifelong Learning Commissioner and a fourth-year physiology and psychology student.

The typical mature student tends to be a female in her late 20s to early 30s, usually a single parent, looking to upgrade his or her education, Forder said. But there are many who do not fit this model.

Forder, through her work as commissioner, brings together the many lifelong learning students on campus and they in turn use each other for support and for a social network. Forder and her committee have organized many social events, including a joint collaboration with CentreSpot for a children's Christmas party which took place this past Sunday.

Donna Moore, mature student advisor at the Centre for New Students, said many of the mature students interested in Western have concerns which vary from other students.

"They're wondering if they can cope with the academic requirements. They realize it's a big commitment," Moore explained. "Will it be worth it in the long run?"

Lifelong learning students, while they enter all kinds of programs, tend to join the faculty of social science primarily, followed by arts. She explained the majority of them do not have recent science backgrounds and the prospect of upgrading their math skills can be daunting.

By far, mature students come back to school to enhance their future employment prospects, Moore said. Or, they are looking for a brand new career.

A smaller percentage of mature students, like Forder, go back to university just for the joy of learning. "I'm fascinated with research and it was a good time for me to leave my job."

The major challenge lifelong learning students have to face is balancing their time with school, family and work. "We have so many things in life, we can't just focus on school. It can be very stressful. We have to study when we don't want to," Forder said.

She continued, saying financial stress is also one of the worst stresses any students, especially lifelong learning students, can face. Western's financial aid office tries to help but there is only so much money available.

"We do explicitly recognize people who have dependents," explained Roma Harris, Western's registrar and vice-provost. "We take into account each student's specific situation when deciding on financial aid."

Coleen Dobbin, a learning skills counsellor at the Student Development Centre, said many mature students have transitional issues. Many have not read a textbook in years or are just unsure if they can do it. But Dobbin usually finds out they can do it and they can succeed in the university setting.

"If you just sit down and talk with the person, what I discover is their great respect for learning. It's just a confidence thing," she said. Learning skills services can help students manage their time through individual appointments or at their drop-in clinic. "There is a lot of joy at just being in school for these students."

Some prospective lifelong learning students also ask if they'll fit in at the university community. But, Moore explained, she does not hear that concern as often as one might think. She has heard many positive experiences older students have had with younger ones. Moore recalled with a smile an incident where an older female student invited her group over for a home cooked meal while they worked on their project.

Having lifelong learning students mix with younger students can work to gap the distance between the generations and both groups can learn from each other, Moore suggested.

Forder said while most of her experiences have been positive, she knows not all mature students feel the same way. There are some professors who are really good towards these students while others have the attitude that a mature student is just "wasting the professor's time", she explained. "We're not young minds that need molding."

Maintaining proper support is a challenge Western must face. There are students willing to provide services but they need a leader, someone who is at the university for more than just four years. Forder worries after she leaves Western, there might not be anyone else to take her place as the commissioner as the members of her committee are also graduating this year.

This is the first year Western has had really strong support for mature students, said Dave Braun, USC president. "Joan has gone above and beyond anyone's expectations to ensure mature students are welcome at Western."

The USC supports lifelong learning students through many ways. There is a drop-in centre for these students every Wednesday evening in the USC office, a food bank has been created with conjunction of the USC and Forder's committee has a budget with which they can plan events and promote their services, Braun continued.

The university tries to make sure lifelong learning students know Western welcomes them by promoting some of the services offered. "We try to direct some of the [promotional] material to students returning to school," Harris said.

Western is very supportive towards mature students through the Centre for New Students and other various support groups, Harris continued. Moore works one night a week in order to be available for students who have to work during the day.

The Centre also offers a program called Getting Ready for University, which is open to all students but three-quarters of the registrants are mature students, Moore explained. This program teaches or refreshes prospective students on note-taking, essay writing, preparing for exams and any other skills needed to succeed at Western.

"This program is very valuable for most people," she said, adding, "It is an introduction to Western's services and increases the confidence of those who take it."

Last year, Dobbin started a support group at the SDC for single mothers on campus. She came up with the idea after interviewing a number of students who were single mothers and realizing there was a need for such a support group.

Forder thought Dobbin's support group was a wonderful idea and mature students need encouragement to stay in school. "In their first year at university, most [mature students] want to quit at least five times," she explained. But with support, they are most likely to continue and finish their degree. "We tend to have the dedication and work skills to do it."

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Copyright The Gazette 2000