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My First Semester 
8th-Dec-2011 06:53 pm
I’ve just finished my first semester of study at the University of Western Australia. I’m doing a Bachelor of Science in geology. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but it’s something that I feel I have to do. Let me tell you what it’s like to go to university as a mature age student.

It’s an isolating experience

Just in case you don’t know, I’ll set the stage. I’m 33 years old and starting my first year at university. I’m fifteen years older than a vast majority of the other students. Almost twice as old as them.

It really gets to you after a while. At first I was so frantic and full of panic to notice, but once things settled I really started to notice how much I stick out. I found it difficult to relate to the other mature age students as they mostly discussed things like their families and sports. My chosen major seems to be filled with people who have the goal of getting a high paying job in a field they don’t really care about. Hell, even the friend I do have on campus is an associate professor.

During my labs I think I’m looked upon as some kind of teacher or tutor, as everyone at my table turns to me and asks ‘So.. what do we do?’ I’m flattered that they seem to think I have all the answers but I’m just a student like them. (I think the young guy I usually partnered with started to resent me for always volunteering us to demonstrate something) The field trip.. well, I can’t really express how hard it was to work in a bunk environment filled with 17-18 year olds, let alone work.

I’m disappointed there are not many other students who I can really get into the subject with or perhaps share studies with. I’m already sick and tired of people telling me how boring it must be to study rocks, or looking at me with a vacant stare while I get into an excited spiel about metamorphic petrology. I miss Monty, the cat I was looking after, but I doubt I could lend the proper amount of time to tend to him these days. I don’t like the idea of doing this alone, but that’s where I am with it at the moment. I’m hoping my ‘second year’ will change a bit in that regard as I interact with people who are more intent in the course.

You have no time for university

Despite all my cut backs and budgeting I still wasn’t able to afford to go to university and work at the same time. It puts me in the red by about $40 a week or so. I can’t put in enough work hours to support myself and study at the same time. Fortunately I’m a fiscally responsible person and I think in the long term, so I have enough money in the bank to support myself until I get my degree.

Not only is the balance of work and education a tricky thing, but so is free time. Every hour of free time spent on anything ‘frivolous’ such as recreation is an exercise in procrastination. There’s always something that needs to be done. I’m used to going hard in spurts and then recuperating, but that hard, marathon that you run in getting a degree has been a bit of a shock to my system. I still take the personal time though. And my education suffers for it.

A passing grade can be more unsettling than a zero

Around the middle of the semester I had a day where my timing was completely off by an hour. I left home thinking I’d be in time to reach my faunal remains practical for archaeology, only to get a reminder pop up on my phone that it starts in five minutes. Naturally I ended up missing it, and was going to get a zero for that part of the assessment. And I was cool with that.

By contrast, I had to do an essay on an oral presentation I gave about the Australian Holocene. I spent night after night scouring the library and browsing through journals and books searching for that little bit of extra evidence to support my argument. I was thoroughly gutted when it game back to me with a mark of 60%.

The 0% was deserved because it was my own fault and negligence that caused it. There was a perfectly valid reason behind the mark. By contrast, putting everything you have into something and then having it come back to you with the overall impression of ‘Pssh! Pretty average.’ can kill your confidence in a pretty big way. I felt rubbish for weeks, wondering if I wasn’t just pretending my way through all of this. In the end I spoke to my tutor and was able to sit in on one of the other labs to get a mark for that missed prac anyway. I got 80%, and utilising critique from my that first paper I managed to get 88% on my second.

The difference between liking something and hating something is just a small twinge of perspective away.

I can’t tell you how much I fucking hate cooking.

I’ve always cooked most of my meals but starting university meant that I had to make a few drastic lifestyle changes, so most of my meals suddenly became vegetarian by default. It’s the cheapest way to do things in terms of nutrition and the amount of food you can eat.

But it’s a tremendous chore. After working half the day, being on campus half the day, and then studying the rest of the time, having to come home and cook meals for the next three days (that won’t go rancid in your backpack) isn’t a hurdle I really want to jump. All I want to do is pay someone else to feed me cheaply (fast food) which just sabotages me financially and doesn’t do my health any good. I swear I have never been fatter than the last three months.

Once my oven eventually gave out things became even more difficult. Which leads me up to..

You’re one small dilemma away from packing it all in

It’s easy to prepare for the things that you expect to go wrong, but there’s so much just primed and ready to go wrong when you don’t expect it, and it’s those curve balls that really do the best job at trying to defeat you. The oven breaks. The washing machine breaks. (I managed to fix it by twirling random internal parts) I changed the battery in my UPS to keep my PC and monitor protected, then someone deliberately flicks the main switch to my house and fries the DVD player and stereo.

They’re tiny disruptions to a bizarrely structured and stressful environment that really just push you to the point of snapping and giving up.

You’ll forgo everything for sleep

I wasn’t even giving it everything I could last semester and I was exhausted for a majority of it. Once or twice I just had to give up and write a day off of work and pay to catch up on some much needed sleep. Or I’d come home and not bother cooking, going straight to bed instead. Or go to a lecture and pretend to learn, only to come out of it and go ‘Well shit, that’s going to need some revision’ because my body aches and my eyes barely want to stay open.

Despite all of the above I really enjoy the learning. Geology has really gripped me and caught my interests. I’m disappointed that I won’t be doing any more of it for another two years. I find studying the earth to be utterly fascinating. I love learning about the processes that shape and will continue to shape the surface that we live on. And that’s such a tiny bit of it. There’s so much going on underneath us! Comparatively speaking the existence of humans are a species, as a society, everything we’ve achieved over the last 10,000 years and what we’ve yet to do is utterly ephemeral compared to what’s been going on in the past from a geological perspective, and what will continue to happen long after we’re gone. (Australian nationalists will be delighted to know that we’re just going to be pasted onto the side of Asia eventually). It’s humbling. It’s my kind of science.

I’m seeing things that I was completely and utterly oblivious to before. In ‘high-definition’ so to speak. It’s a physically painful effort to train your brain to notice all the details in a rock that I do now. The unit co-ordinator warned us that it would happen. I never really believed her until I’d been squinting and concentrating on samples long enough to want to vomit.

My assignments and projects are difficult and challenging, but enjoyable. The good kind of challenge, as it’s actually a process of progression and you have something to show for them at the end of it all. I think the word ‘challenge’ is thrown around too liberally by some in regards to a really shitty and unpleasant situation, but it fits nicely here.

I guess if I had to sum it up I’d say that I love the learning, but I really loathe university and university culture. It’s a young person thing.

I’ve completed 9% of my degree. Current forecasts put me at finishing my degree in six and a half years. No amount of forecasting on my behalf can predict where I’ll be in a year’s time. Just last week, my bosses sold their business and we have new owners, which left me wondering if I’d even have a job anymore and if I’d have to just bite the bullet and go full time. I’m still working so far. I’ve looked at doing my degree at University of Queensland in 2013 (I love the sound of the Mount Isa field trip) but I keep finding ways to thwart myself. The natural sciences faculty and staff at UWA are just running such a great course, and are such great people that I wonder if I’d get the same level of education from another institution. Where would I live as a full time student? Do geology majors even have jobs outside of WA? I sometimes wish I could switch off my sense of caution and foresight and just go.

For now though, Mr Feesh and I will just continue to go out and enjoy our rocks. It’s an otter thing.
10th-Dec-2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
Well it's looking more and more likely that I'll be going back to uni too next year. Possibly even first semester depending on how things go. So at least you'll have one friendly face about the same age to hang out with.
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