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Fitting in at university after a break from study

If you’re thinking of starting university after some time out of school, it’s natural to wonder how you’ll fit in. Many students in your position imagine a lecture room brimming with younger students and an unfamiliar scholarly environment.

These concerns are understandable, says Associate Professor Alexander Mussap, of Deakin’s School of Psychology. ‘You haven’t been in an educational environment for a long time, you may not be savvy around technology and you may worry that you’ll be out of place in a young and hip modern university environment.’

Sound familiar? If so, we have some good news: you’ll find the reality is far different to this.

Diversity at university

University students are a diverse bunch and non-school leavers are a sizeable part of the mix. The reality of university life is it’s a challenging and rewarding place for anyone and everyone to achieve their best.

‘The good news is that university is an incredibly diverse place,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says. ‘Universities are not the way they are portrayed on American TV, especially here in Australia. We cater to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, from school leavers through to working parents and retirees.’

Dr Merrilyn Hooley, Senior Lecturer in Deakin’s School of Psychology, agrees the student body is diverse. ‘When looking out in to a lecture theatre we see faces of all ages and backgrounds looking back at us. There is no ‘proto-typical university student’ any longer,’ Dr Hooley says.

Deakin graduate Otha Akoch is a brilliant example of someone who achieved success with study later in life. Arriving from Sudan in 2002 as a refugee, Akoch thrived in university life at Deakin’s Warrnambool campus and now has masters’ degrees in international relations and humanitarian assistance.

Are you the right type?

Do you think you’re the kind of person who goes to university? Despite what you might think, university isn’t just for self-styled bookish intellectuals.

Assoc. Prof. Mussap says if you are curious and motivated to learn, you are the right kind of person for university. ‘The biggest issues facing us as educators is not dealing with intellectual limitations in our students but motivational limitations,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says.

‘Engaging students is the challenge that we face as educators, and it is one that in my experience mature age students often excel. A hard-working and motivated student will do well in this environment.’

Graduate Lisa Golding demonstrated this motivation. After 30 years as a florist, Golding decided to switch careers and give university a go. She didn’t finish high school and is the first in her family to attend university, yet despite this, she excelled in her studies.

'Universities are not the way they are portrayed on American TV, especially here in Australia. We cater to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, from school leavers through to working parents and retirees.'

Associate Professor Alexander Mussap,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Navigating the social side

If you weren’t in the cool group at school or spent your lunch hours hiding in the library, don’t worry – university won’t be a repeat of those socially awkward years. The key thing to remember is that everyone is there to learn, and you can choose how social you want to be.

There is no pressure to be social, Assoc. Prof. Mussap says. ‘The reality is students are generally very busy juggling their study load and often their outside work load and family commitments – so for some students, there is just not that much time to get too social around here.’

Dr Hooley says the online environment often becomes a way of connecting. ‘Each unit has discussion boards for students and we find that students soon find common interests and make connections. These groups are faceless and ageless and are comprised of students with similar goals and interests, supporting one another as they learn.’

‘There is plenty of opportunity to make friends and fit in at university through organised clubs and events as well as through casual study groups. Either way, mature age students will find opportunities to “fit in” in a way that suits them.’

Or, just forget about fitting in

Assoc. Prof. Mussap says the best way to cope with trying to fit in is to just get on with the study. ‘The best advice I would give is to focus on learning and achieving the learning objectives set out by each of the subjects that you undertake.’

Dr Hooley recommends starting on the front foot and diving in. ‘Get to know the names and faces of key staff and don’t be afraid to introduce yourselves to them and your peers early on the online discussion board.’

She suggests taking advantage of the support on offer. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask when unsure about anything. Join peer mentor groups and make the most of your mentors.’

‘There is so much support available to help students transition to university life and make the most of this wonderful life-changing experience.’

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Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap
Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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Dr Merrilyn Hooley
Dr Merrilyn Hooley

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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