Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A second beginning: three mature Camosun students tell their stories

June 14, 2017 by Quinn Hiebert, contributing writer

Why on earth would someone who is a bit older than the average student—a mature student, as it were—want to go back to school? Turns out there are plenty of good reasons—and age is relative anyway. Going back to school as an adult doesn’t necessarily mean you were like me, a problem student who got into heaps of trouble, caused all sorts of headaches to teachers, skipped lots of classes, and dropped out early to start working.

The thing about working—and mature students know this—is that it teaches valuable skills, like how to communicate, how to lead, how to gain more patience, and how to work hard. Of the mature students I sat down with—who varied in age from 28 to 50—most had degrees or diplomas before choosing to enroll at Camosun. They varied in background, culture, and program, but they had one thing in common: they were all working extremely hard to reach their goals with the best grades.

At Camosun, each classroom possesses the opportunity for every student—regardless of age—to learn as much from their classmates as they do from their program. And sometimes, mature students can teach as much as they can learn.

Learning life skills

The youngest person I spoke with was 28 years old, and he was unperturbed by sitting in a light spring drizzle in a T-shirt while we chatted; during our interview, he moves a tiny green caterpillar to a safer spot on the picnic table we’re at. Camosun second-year Human Resources student Mohammad Chaudhry also holds a diploma in Business Management; he says he approaches school differently now.

“I did five years in high school,” he says. “I was never reinvited back to any high school that I went to because of how much trouble I got into, and I think that was also because I moved cultures. I’m from Pakistan. I moved to Saudi Arabia, and the place in Saudi Arabia that I moved to was exactly like out here.”

This story originally appeared in our June 14, 2017 issue.

Chaudhry says that he ended up in a compound in Saudi Arabia with about 50,000 people in it, ex-pats “from everywhere.” He says that he made some bad decisions while trying to deal with the culture shock there.

“My attitude in school now, a lot of it is inspired by that, because I messed up a lot,” he admits. “And now I realize that I failed so much that I don’t want to fail. Given that I’m an international student, I don’t have a lot of the opportunities that Canadian residents or citizens have in terms of the financial aid. The only chance I have right now is to make use of this opportunity, because if I don’t, then I don’t know if I’m going to get a chance to study in a country like this.”

Even though his time out of school wasn’t too long—three years—Chaudhry says he chose to go back because there was no growth in the retail industry. But he did pick up some useful skills while working in that sector.

“Humbleness,” he says, as an example. “People are sometimes not the nicest, so it teaches you to be a bit more humble. Patience is another thing. I’m still learning patience. I don’t get up every day and go, ‘Hey! I learned patience! I’m done learning patience for the rest of my life!’”

Chaudhry says he also learned emotional intelligence—still a work in progress—and about people.

“And that you can’t learn in school,” he says, “because in school, you’re always so focused on getting your assignments done, and then even when you’re within groups, everybody has a goal. So people do compromise, people do put some of their own biases or egos aside, and then get things done. But then when you’re out in the workforce, especially in the service industry, you have to deal with all of it. You have to be calm when somebody is being a little aggressive, when someone is being a little bit more challenging, you know, just stuff like that. Just life.”

Chaudhry says that human resources isn’t going to be his only career, and that drive isn’t constrained by age; it depends on the individual. He knows people close to his age who are only interested in getting a certificate and leaving.

“A lot of people are okay with getting Cs and Bs; I’m not,” he says. “People always say Cs do get degrees. But then if you have As, you make your own way. You do. And I don’t have much to show to an employer in terms of my actual experience in HR, but having my grades in good standing, I can show them that I’m committed—not that I’m any better than any of the students, but it does show commitment. It shows dedication, that I took the time to do well. And I think that’s all there is.”

Becoming the change

“With age comes grace, wisdom, and beauty.” This would be an accurate way to describe 49-year-old Charlene Adsit—a third-year student in Camosun’s Human Resources program—although she’d probably scoff at me for it. I meet Adsit in the Interurban library and find her to be a soft-spoken but commanding individual. When we start chatting, Adsit explains that she used the service industry to travel.

“I didn’t get into a lot of trouble, I just got sidetracked,” says Adsit. “I was in the service industry, so I was able to travel within Alberta and BC. It was good money at that time. Being a young kid, I wasn’t really thinking of the future. Then I started realizing some of my friends were graduating with degrees or diplomas and starting families. Well, I had the family; I kind of started backwards. So I just thought it was time to do something. And I always wanted to do higher education, but I’d never really followed through. And now I have this time, I can do whatever I want.”

Adsit, who has also done some university courses, finds Grade 12 to be useful only for getting entry-level jobs. She says that attending post-secondary is very important these days.

“I don’t think just Grade 12 cuts it for anybody,” she says. “I think if people don’t have any kind of diploma, or any kind of training, it’s really hard to make a decent wage, especially with our economy the way it’s going. Our two older kids are in their late 20s and they’re still barely even making it. One’s a cook and one’s a carpenter, but they don’t have any tickets. I always find that people become more [hireable] when they get their training. They’re not guaranteed a higher wage, but it’s a lot higher than being on minimum wage.”

Adsit has had numerous jobs, and she worked for the provincial government, which she says wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t like my job,” she says. “So then I worked up north, and I found I still didn’t have enough skills, even though I worked for the provincial government. Generally, people think it’s a cushy job, but I wasn’t moving up; I was going to be filing. And I wasn’t comfortable filing.”

Adsit is from the Tahltan community in northern BC, and she says that she wanted to try to keep jobs within the community.

“I found that a lot of people that were hiring were not from the traditional territory,” she says, “which is normal, because it’s a big boom town—mining, all that kind of stuff—not a lot of qualified people there. And I thought, if I get my education, get going in that direction, just really get people more into training, keeping those jobs in the community… I could have some sort of influence. And being First Nation, I thought, why not go for it?”

Adsit says that she’s glad she’s had the experiences she’s had, and she cautions younger people who are in programs because their parents expect them to or because they feel they have no other direction.

“I would really think about it,” she says, “because it’s great to learn about things, and some people are lifelong learners. If you really don’t want to be there, then don’t register for a course if you know you’re not ready.”

Adsit says she’s the only one in her family who isn’t educated, but that hasn’t been her biggest hurdle toward getting an education.

“I think the biggest battle would be with my husband,” she admits. “He’s kind of like, ‘What are you doing, going to school at your age?’ So I think that’s the biggest battle, people that don’t really understand. And I don’t really take it to heart; that’s their business, not mine.”

Adsit says that her work experience has given her some extra skills.

“Especially for deadlines,” she says. “Learning how to get along with a small community—especially in teamwork, where [the teams are] all assigned, and you don’t pick them. Learning on different levels, and trying to get along with people you know that you don’t really get along with—you’re going to have to learn.”

Adsit says that she had a really open mind when returning to school, given that she’d had 23 years of life experience out of the classroom. She says that it’s a whole new experience for her, and that she’s learned a lot.

“It’s way different learning from when I [first] went to school. Here, we have a lot more teamwork, a lot more reports and stuff like that. When I was going to school, it was a lot of studying formulas and essay writing. But here, everything’s really short and concise. I’m not really struggling with that, but it’s like, if you can make it shorter, make people understand it. It’s quite different. And I find the younger people are more willing to take more risks than I actually am. So there’s a big difference.”

As the classes progress from 100- to 300-level, Adsit says that the students have become more grounded and focused.

“In my first 100 [course], I think it was an evening course, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my; what am I getting myself into?’” she says. “I was really frustrated, because [the other students] had their cell phone in their crotch and weren’t really paying attention. But that’s like with anything—you start a new person at any job, and they have to learn about the organization. And it is different.”

But Adsit also says that there are all sorts of different students, and they bring diversity to the classroom.

“For me, I’m kind of honoured to see them, too,” she says. “I know they get frustrated with me, because sometimes I’m thinking, ‘You’re getting off topic.’ And I get it. And you know, for some people, it’s social. But for me, it’s not, because I’m paying for it, and I’m spending a lot of time coming here. It takes me a lot more work to get the same grades as someone just coming out of high school.”

“Let’s get this done.”

Rana Bhattacharyya speaks slowly, considering his words, and the result is the creation of a bubble—a calm conversation in the noisy atmosphere outside the Interurban library. Bhattacharyya holds a degree in Geosciences and is currently a first-year student in Camosun’s Plumbing and Pipe Trades program. Bhattacharyya is 30; he says he found his first degree harder to acquire, even though he says he had a fortunate enough upbringing.

“My parents are immigrants, and I came here to Canada fairly young,” he says. “I was fairly lucky; they had a reasonable job and everything. I grew up in a small town, where it was fairly decent in the form of enterprise and everything. It was part of the nuclear industry in Ontario, so I was fairly spoiled in high school and middle school and all that. Then I went to do schooling and did a fairly long extended undergrad degree in university, because I changed my mind a few times, and was like, ‘Maybe this is not a good fit; try something else out.’ So it took me six years to do undergrad, and then also [moving] things between a school in Ontario and a school in Alberta. But then I finally finished school there and got into working for oil and gas companies.”

Bhattacharyya says that the job started out well—the industry was booming—but it was frustrating not knowing if it would last after spending so much money to gain skills.

“It was very tough,” he says, “because you have to, right away, start doing 12-hour shifts. You sort of lose all your friends right away, and, you know, work long hours. So that’s something I’ve dealt with the last five to six years I’ve been working. And it was interesting—lots of cool projects to work on, in Alberta and the States, and lately I’ve been to Southeast Asia to work. But I don’t know where [the industry] is going. It’s like the coal industry—we still really need coal, but how long before some other technology comes in? And maybe there’s not as much demand for that product now.”

The last eight years have taught Bhattacharyya that this time he doesn’t want to go to school for something with uncertain employment prospects. And being at school has taught him just how different young people are as they enter post-secondary these days.

“Times have changed since I was growing up,” he says. “The economy’s not as good now, and things are tighter. The younger students, I find they’re also way more efficient than they were when I was doing school the first time around. So everyone’s got some sort of focus and they know what program’s good, what’s maybe not very useful. They kind of pick and choose what’s maybe good for them. And it seems like they’re able to put a lot more focused, concise effort into whatever they’re doing now. I’ve become like that now, but it’s kind of interesting to see the people coming in that already have that mindset, much more so; I guess it’s kind of how the environment is now.”

Bhattacharyya says he’s a little less stressed than some of his classmates because he’s gone through the process before and knows what to expect. He’s also more efficient in how he approaches school now.

“I’m ahead,” he says, “trying to get the school part of it done quicker than the time I have. So it’s not like I’m going to just take my time and do whatever I want; it’s more like I need to finish as soon as possible, to save as much money, and get to work as soon as possible. And that’s going to be a year. And I’m thinking a lot less about the social aspect in school, so not really joining that many clubs or anything this time around. It’s more, ‘Let’s get this done,’ so I can be done with it, and find work.”

 

When I enrolled at Camosun as a returning—mature?—student, I wasn’t sure if my youthful appearance would be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, there’s a stigma around adult students, like there’s an expiry date on post-secondary education. On the other hand, it’s harder to be taken seriously as a younger person, and the first reaction of most is to tell me I’m too young to have much experience; looks like age discrimination goes both ways after all.

But what struck me about each Camosun student I interviewed for this story was that the mature students appreciated—and valued—the younger perspective, their knowledge, and their experiences.

When I joined the workforce 15 years ago, I was told that the average person will change their career six times in their working life. With today’s economy, that means more education—and hope that the expensive schooling doesn’t result in a minimum-wage job.

The new face of post-secondary—at least here in Victoria—might just be these mature students. As our city rapidly approaches an environment where only the wealthy can afford to live, the only hope many have is to move off the island, where there is affordable housing, living wages, and better employment prospects. And for many people, tapping into those employment prospects means going back to school. Regardless of age.

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