How to help mature students thrive on campus — ideas from one who succeeded

The University of Calgary is trying to attract more students like Tina Larkin-Black, who was determined to retrain after a layoff. The university promises to make campus a place where so-called mature students can succeed.

University of Calgary promises to be age-friendly, but grad Tina Larkin-Black says it'll take some work

Tina Larkin-Black, left, is seen here at her graduation with friend Michelle Stone-Quinton. Now the holder of a master of social work degree, Larkin-Black has a few ideas about how to make mature students feel more welcome on campus. (Submitted by Tina Larkin-Black)

Deciding to go to university after 17 years in manufacturing trades wouldn't be an easy decision for anyone.

Tina Larkin-Black was laid off in 2009 and faced the struggle of finding a new job without a high school diploma. It was daunting, but she jumped right in — a move she said was the hardest she faced in what became a 10-year journey.

"Just having the guts to go back, to be honest with you," she said. "It was a tough decision but I have no regrets."

She got that high school diploma and started studying at Mount Royal University. At 43, she transferred to the University of Calgary and spent a further nine years getting her bachelor's and master's degrees in social work.

The University of Calgary is trying to attract more students like Larkin-Black — so-called mature students, or those who want a post-secondary education but aren't coming in right out of high school.

The school has joined a group called the Age-Friendly University Global Network, and promises change.

Larkin-Black spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray about her experience and what might help other mature students succeed on campus.

Q: What would have made it easier those first days on campus? What would've made it easier for you?

A: First, I had a really hard time even understanding the map. It's very, very small print. It's an aerial view — made no sense — so I had to rely on my kids to take me around.

Huge anxiety about being around all those people, younger people, fear of judgment, not really sure what am I getting myself into. It had been so long since I'd been in school.

The cost was huge because as an older adult, I have assets, so I didn't really qualify for any of the funding. So it was all out of pocket.

Now I understand that they do have some scholarships for older adults, but at that time, they didn't.

Q: So much of those first days of the year is all about mixers trying to get the students to get to know each other. How did you handle the frosh week and those kinds of things?

A: That really wasn't my thing. Orientation, I really did not feel that that was geared to our age at all. It was like, you said, it was all about the social activities for younger people.

I came away from the orientation still not knowing anything about the campus.

The University of Calgary has joined a network that promises age-friendly campuses for mature students. (CBC)

It took me quite a while to even learn that there were tunnels between the buildings so that I didn't have to go outside in the weather. That would have been really handy to know.

Q: You're wondering why you're the only one hauling a coat from class to class?

A: Exactly. The lockers are so tiny, they can't hold anything anyway. So you're lugging all these books and coat and bags and everything all around campus.

Q: How did your fellow students deal with you ?

A: There were a couple of us that were older and so we were really actually quite drawn to each other. I think just because of the visual, "Oh my God, I see you and me."

The younger ones, they look at you as as a mother figure, a parent. I was more of a colleague in my eyes.

Q: For them, though, it's probably their first experience of dealing with someone of a different age as an equal. Sure it was a lesson for them, as well.

A: It was a really good experience, you know, no judgment. We really were a group, we were colleagues. But it was very different. The conversations were quite different.

Q: Here's the university joining what they call the age-friendly network of universities. Are they age-friendly right now or have they got a long way to go?

A: I think that they do have, I wouldn't say a long way to go, I think that they do have some work as far as, like I said, the orientation. They can really make some changes there. Social activities for older people, I think there could be some improvements there.

But they do have some interest groups that you can join that meet once a month for an hour that are really good. I was part of the gerontology interest group.

So I think that they're getting there, but I don't think they're there yet.

Q: Has it been worth it for you, going back?

A: Oh my goodness, yes. I think anyone who wants to go back, you really do need to check your motivator of going back.

It was nine years from start to finish for me. I did have to work part-time, but stepping out full-time for nine years, that impacts everything.

So if you're going back to school as an older adult in your 40s or 50s, and expecting to recoup the resources that it took to go back, you may be disappointed.

If you're going back to realize your dreams such as I did, or increase your social connections, experience a different professional experience, then I say go for it.

I think it's absolutely worth it because the person I was then is not who I am now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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