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I never saw myself doing it as a mature student, though, and I’m quite glad because I dreaded turning 23, thinking that my youth and the best time to study were basically over. Now 29 and with a thankfully-better grip on reality, I am entering the second year of my Psychology degree at Ulster University and it feels like the right move for a number of reasons.

Ten years ago, when I finished school and my friends and classmates were heading on to university, I knew that as appealing as it all seemed, it wasn’t right for me just then. I wanted to become a social worker and make a meaningful, helpful difference in peoples’ lives, but also discovered that a bit more time was needed to build up my experience and reach the right level to carry this out.

My so-so A-level results and failure to pass the first stage of application to study Social Work seemed to cement the idea that I spend time on other things first. This led to nine years of working in a range of jobs; further education and training; volunteering for a few charities; some travelling; facing the occasional personal challenge; and learning that the road in life that I had initially chosen was perhaps not the best option for me.

A comparison between the person I was even a few years ago and the student I am now could help to reaffirm that I made the right choice for myself. I used to be nervous, self-conscious and shy (even more than I still sometimes can be) and believed that staying rooted in my comfort zone was the best way to avoid feeling embarrassed, let down or upset. I know now that this approach is only helpful for so long before you still feel pretty rubbish, just in a different way. On the opposite end of the scale I used to crave an amazing, thriving social life, but was still too cripplingly nervous to put myself out there and feared that I lacked the social skills needed to carry this off. Not a fun cycle to be stuck in.

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Rather than risk making an idiot of myself or saying the wrong thing I stayed quiet and passive a lot of the time instead. As you can imagine, a few more overconfident, domineering individuals liked to take advantage of this, causing me to retreat even further. I had little to no motivation or focus geared towards anything other than my favourite films and TV shows. It was these that I spent most of my time absorbing, escaping into and fixating on, rather than enjoying and taking part in real, human experiences and interactions. Having a life, you might say.

Thankfully things are different now, which allowed the idea of university to feel more like a real possibility. My respect goes out to those who have achieved the following in their earlier adulthood…I’ve gotten better at managing my time and following through with commitments. I’m better at planning ahead and balancing things that are important to me. I don’t beat myself up over setbacks but chalk it up to experience and consider what to do differently next time. I’ve realised that other peoples’ dramas don’t hook me quite as much they used to and that focusing on other, bigger, more rewarding things is a legitimate, more tempting option.

Time and maturity have allowed for other, more personal improvements too. I’m studying something that has resonated with me for some time and that I hope to carry further, rather than a safer, more reliable field that does not greatly interest me (and is anything completely set in stone these days anyway?). I am availing of university outlets related to two major turning points I have only faced as I’ve gotten older: identifying as a gay man and being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I feel more motivated to take action and work towards my goals, rather than procrastinate or hope things will just fall into place with minimal effort. I feel more open-minded rather than seeing things in black and white, or remaining ignorant of significant things because they do not affect me directly.

So it’s an interesting contrast. Yes, I know. You’d like to think that, of course, someone of my age would have all this sussed out by now but still, walking a path that feels right at a stage in life that feels right has certainly helped.

As with most things, it hasn’t been completely free of obstacles. Worrying that I appear antisocial because I don’t feel like drinking or partying. Questioning if I am too quiet, and therefore boring and awkward, a lot of the time. Feeling like I constantly have to be “on”, brimming over with people skills and confidence. Watching another episode of Neighbours (no shame, clearly) rather than work on an assignment. Not turning off my devices and going to bed at a reasonable, sensible-person hour. Battling nerves before a night out or a meeting of a society that I’ve joined…the list goes on.

Luckily, I am working on and applying different ways of addressing these. Prioritising two or three tasks to work on every day, however small. Having some form of social plans each week. Appreciating that I’m interacting with people just by showing up and occasionally contributing to the conversation, and that less is more a lot of the time. Turning devices off and placing them in another room before bed (with an actual alarm clock to get me up in the morning). Focusing on external factors like the people I’m with rather than letting inner anxieties consume me. Focusing on my studies – you know, the reason we’re all here. Making time for myself to read, listen to music or generally recharge. Exercise, meditation and healthy eating, for physical and mental benefit. Communicating with classmates, lecturers and Student Support on things that I can’t quite get to grips with.

Where a small part of me was pretty apprehensive at the thought of interacting with and relating to younger students, I’ve found it to be enjoyable. All those shudder-worthy teambuilding activities and icebreakers from youth clubs and staff training sessions over the years had their uses, apparently. That and building a rapport with younger people has its easy, refreshing, less intense moments.

So while I am by no means the most confident, outspoken, outgoing mature student 24/7, it is comforting to realise that taking the time to grow and learn has allowed for a lot. And while a lack of motivation can still hold me back sometimes, I now tend to approach things in a more focused, measured way. I’m studying something I’m truly invested in; trying to challenge and better myself; being more open to things; and living in the present rather than rigidly trying to plan out the next five years. May the next three years and beyond bring more of the same.

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