Monday, 24 September 2012

The Angst of the Mature Student

So you’ve finally made it to uni!  All those years away from study doing other things; taking a break from the trauma of schoolwork, getting your social life sorted, getting work experience, travelling, raising children, and now here you are having a complete change of direction.

After the trauma of searching out those ancient certificates, negotiating the maze of the application process, surviving writing the dreaded personal statement, you are finally sorted and ready to start.

Now the angst begins!  If you are anything like I was when I started my undergraduate degree, you will be still doubting your ability to keep up with all those bright young students still sparkling from completing their A levels, and  enjoying a study free summer. However you will have spent ages getting everything organised, your timetable and reading list highlighted, your diary completely filled in to facilitate the successful juggling of work, child care, shopping , cooking etc.  I began my undergraduate degree twelve years ago as not only a mature student, but an extra mature one.  I worried that I would not be able to keep up, that I would miss all my deadlines, that I would fail miserably and generally look really stupid – and really old!  I was that student who, when presented with the first course work had to go off to a tutor to ask what an essay really was and ask how I was going to know what to write. Then I realised that I was one of those really nerdy ones who have all their reading done ready for seminars, that get to the library first to take out all the recommended books, who are always on time for their classes, and get their work in on time or well before the deadline, not trusting that computers wont crash just before the deadline!

As I settled into my first term and began to socialise with my group I discovered that the other students weren’t nearly as scary as I had thought at first.  I naturally gravitated towards certain students and those were the ones I spent many hours with as we formed revision study groups, threw ideas around for essays and course work, fretted over readings being much too hard and sought sympathy as I moaned about my recalcitrant teenagers and their messy habits.

The adaptation to study is very different for mature students. Your relationships, social life and household management will be affected and you may have serious financial considerations to take on board. You’ll find that you don’t bounce back as easily anymore so all nighter essay writing sessions fuelled by strong coffee or Red Bull don’t work in the way they may have done a few years ago.

Once I went on strike and refused to cook when my teenagers left all the washing up for two days.  I got a takeaway for myself and told them I didn’t really mind what they cooked for themselves.  After accusing me of being very childish they left the washing up for a further day.  I got another takeaway meal and made sure I told them how delicious it was.  They eventually caved in after three days of eating pasta with cheese, and washed all the dishes. After cooking a lovely meal together we sat down to discuss a fair distribution of household chores. The next three years were not entirely plain sailing as we battled over computer access, they complained about their distracted grumpy mother as she tried to concentrate on reading a paper while not burning the fish fingers, I refused to wash any clothing not placed in the washing basket meaning that on more than a few occasions they went to school looking decidedly crumpled and with odd socks! However we also became very close as we agonised over essays together and helped each other survive the panic of looming deadlines.

However, it was all worth it.  My children are now grown up and they often tell me how my efforts to study and work hard have helped to inspire them to work hard to achieve their goals. I think one of the most important survival tools for the mature student is to remember your sense of humour.  If you can find the ludicrous in a seemingly awful scenario, it can become a valuable tool to diffuse all that mature student angst and help you to really enjoy that journey of discovery ahead of you. Throwing  a full size toddler tantrum on the floor in rebellion against my grumpy teenagers was far more effective in getting a point across than yelling at them as they collapsed into giggles at the sight of their mum thrashing around on the floor pounding her fists and stamping her feet!

As a midwife I had worked in situations where my decisions could make the difference between life and death.  At uni, whenever I began lapsing too seriously into mature student angst, my midwife friends would remind me that it was only an essay and no one was going to die so there was no point in losing sleep over it, just carefully plan so that there was enough time to submit work comfortably (making a personal earlier deadline worked well for me) then sit back and forget about it. 

It is always better to pre-empt a situation rather than having to react.  You can monitor your progress and if you are slipping, don’t suffer in silence.  Ask for help while there is still time; depending on what your problem is, there is  your personal tutor, course leader, study skills mentors, or library staff. They can pretty much guarantee that whatever your personal challenge is, they have seen one pretty similar. Don’t suffer in silence – there is absolutely no need to, and the only person who will lose out will be you.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Top five Uni Students’ survival meals

A useful preparation for uni life on a limited budget is learning to cook the basic survival meals.  You may think you can live on ready meals, takeaways and the generosity of fellow student who can actually cook (and many do!) but before you know it those teenage spots begin to reappear, your bank balance is in serious jeopardy and you begin to hanker after something that is not swimming in grease, wrapped in plastic and bears no resemblance to its original food source.

In my last blog I mentioned that Junior suggested giving the recipes for the top five survival meals so here you go:

1. Tomato sauce (for pasta, baked potatoes etc)
      1 tin of tomatoes
      1 onion
      3 garlic cloves
      Pepper, salt, ½ teaspoon of mixed herbs
      Cooking oil
      Green or red peppers
      Can of sweet corn

1. Prepare your vegetables:
Peel and chop up or slice the onion (you can wear swimming goggles if you have problems with crying!)
Finely chop up the garlic.
Peel  and grate carrot
Cut peppers in half and scrape out seeds and white stuff from the inside the cut up into small pieces
2. In a saucepan add 1 tablespoon oil and heat.  Do not allow it to burn.  Add onion and stir it over a medium heat until it goes soft and ‘clear’.  Add garlic, peppers, carrot, pepper salt and mixed herbs, and can of tomatoes.
3. Cover pan with lid 9 (or plate) and turn heat down so that sauce is simmering gently.  Check every few minutes and remove from heat when vegetables are soft.

This is the basic sauce recipe.  It is even nicer the next day when all the flavours have had time to merge well.

Variations:     Add a can of sweet corn at the end of the cooking time and heat long enough just to warn to corn through – it is already coked so will not need much time.
                      Add a can of tuna
                      Use it as the sauce on a pizza base and then sprinkle with cheese and grill

2. Baked potatoes
Buy special baking potatoes.  You can either microwave them or cook them in the oven and the amount of cooking time required  them will depend on their weight.
Always wash them and then poke them a few times with a fork.
For oven baked potatoes (nicer because the skin is crispy), heat the oven to 200oC then place potato(es) in the centre of the middle shelf . Bake for 45 – 60 minutes and test by poking a fork into the centre.
If cooking in the microwave, follow the recipe in the microwave instruction book.
You could start them off in the microwave and then finish them in the oven for about 15 minutes to cut down on the cooking time but still get a crispy skin.
Fillings:  Butter
              Baked beans
              Grated cheese
              Tomato sauce recipe (see above)

3. Scrambled eggs
Use 1-2 eggs per person
In a bowl break the eggs.  Using one half of an egg shell, measure one serve of milk or half milk/half water per egg into the bowl.
Add salt and pepper to taste and a sprinkle of mixed herbs if you fancy it.
In a saucepan melt a teaspoon of butter or oil.
Pour in the egg mixture and stir it over the heat until it coagulates into the scramble.
Pour onto a slice of toast per person and enjoy.

4. Pasta
The best way to cook pasta is to follow the instructions on the side of the packet.  Different sorts of pasta will vary in cooking times.
Sprinkle with grated cheese, use the pasta sauce (above) or pesto sauce – there are endless variations/

5. Cheese toasties
Simple and nutritious, it is simply cheese on toast grilled to melt it.  You can vary it by sprinkling Worcestershire sauce on the toast first, putting sliced tomato under the cheese.  If you want to go exotic, try my special family Welsh Rarebit  recipe(welsh rarebit recipe).

Of course there are lots of other good student staples such as porridge and peanut butter but these are good to start with especially if you are one of those rare creatures that cannot stand anything coming out of a particular fast food manufacturer with golden arches and a Scottish sounding name.

By learning to cook basic meals you will eat far more nutritiously, save a fortune, stay healthy (especially if you add lots of fruit and veges) and have great fun with your friends as you learn to cook together then eat the results.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Starting at Uni – the essentials!

A summer of waitings: 
  • Waiting for your A level results,
  • Waiting for the university’s decision,
  • Waiting for student finance to be sorted
  • Waiting to see whether you got the accommodation you wanted. 

As it all becomes a distant memory you are busy preparing to start your new life as a uni student. How ready do you feel to start meeting new people, to live somewhere different, to learn new skills, to find your way round a great big campus, to manage your own money and cook your own meals?

You may have quite a mixture of emotions - nervousness, excitement, curiosity and  a rising sense of panic even. Well, we are looking forward to welcoming you and expect you to feel a bit lost and confused.  However, you will be amazed at how quickly you will settle in, find your way around and meet like-minded people. Just ask.

Attending university is a life changing experience. You have worked hard to get here and the amount you will get out of your experience will be directly proportional to the amount you put in. “Moving in weekend” is a great time to begin making friends. Freshers week is full of great social activities while the course induction is really important to help you understand the structure of your course, where you need to be and when, and to get to meet your tutors.

During a quiet time working here on the reception desk we put our heads together to come up some ideas to answer the question “As a current student with lots of experience behind you, what would have been the most valuable advice for you to take when you first started?

Junior said “Make sure you have everything you need for your accommodation and learn to cook the top five student meals”
We began to compile a list of everything that would come in handy but halfway through we discovered a brilliant web-site that does packs of student essentials called Click2campus  (  We checked the list of the essentials pack for £99 and it had everything we had written down except drawing pins (to put up all those pictures and posters) and an iron. Even if you don’t get the kit you can use it as a guide to stock up. The other things we thought to be sure you stock up on are:

  • Clothes washing powder
  • Drawing pins
  • Laptop
  • TV (but don’t forget you will need to arrange a licence)
  • Washing up liquid
  • Cleaning cloths

Food staples:
  • Teabags, coffee
  • Sugar
  • Oil (for cooking and salads)
  • Eggs
  • Pepper, salt, herbs, spices
  • Spreads (margarine, butter)
  • Jam, peanut butter, marmite (Vegemite is you are an Aussie like me!)
  • Baked beans

Avneet ‘s advice is to spend as much time as possible with your peers.  Your parents may be in deep mourning at you deserting them but you will not do them or yourself any favours by going back home every weekend.  You will not really feel that you are settled in one place or the other as you pack up every Friday to go home then unpack again every Monday – what a faff!  You will miss out on getting out and about in London, socialising with your fellow students, and really immersing yourself in the whole experience.  That first term of finding friends and building relationships is really important because before you know it you will have to get stuck into the serious business of group work, researching for essays, and studying for exams. That is where all those lovely friends you made come into their own as you moan about too much work,  battle away in the library trying to find that elusive book or paper and then gather together to celebrate each other’s successes and surviving your first year.

That time goes so fast.  It is precious – enjoy it!

Picture credits:

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Paralympics and surviving Clearing with all that social media

After all the upheaval, excitement and hype of the Olympics, I thought I would be pleased to see everything cranking up again for the Paralympics.  I was really looking forward to the Opening ceremony but although there were some really good bits i.e. great lighting, great props and interesting theme it all seemed a bit earnest and worthy. I would have liked some more humour. The days are getting shorter and there is a feel of Autumn in the air.  As the summer tourists leave, Londoners return from holidays, and kids get ready to start school our street is coming back to life. However getting out and about in Greenwich today with the sun shining and the equestrian events still in full swing, the atmosphere was lovely.  I couldn’t resist getting the camera out!

Pointing the way were our games makers, ever cheerful but a little shy at my request for them to pose.

Games makers:

The flags have been changed from featuring the Olympic symbol to those featuring the three crescents of the Paralympics.


Wandering a little further I met Grace and Oona, with their police riders. Grace the grey is an experienced horse who takes part in extra special events including royal pageants, while Oona is a newbie who is still learning the ropes, getting used to crowds and all the attention she attracts.  I learnt that each horse is given a name starting with the letter allocated to the year s/he joins the force which means that Oona joined eight years after Grace  - if I am doing my sums right. It’s a bit like car registrations!

Grace and Oona

Then it was off to Greenwich town where I met two of our cycling paramedics.  What a great way to get around and reassuring to have them on hand for any mishaps.


Meanwhile there have been strange bright pink happenings around the Cutty Sark as though she has been overtaken by a virulent form of seaweed. It is a wonderful sculpture that is reformed each day as people are invited to take bits of and rearrange them.

A smaller version of the Olympics big screen has been set up near the Cutty Sark and it was strange seeing people lounging in their folding chairs enjoying their refreshments while watching the action. It is lovely to see how the wildflower and grasses garden has blossomed – it was only a couple of months ago that the ground was all bare.


I have been working in our Clearing team all summer and now I feel ready for a holiday but first I have to find the energy to complete that last piece of work for my masters due in 1 October.  I had visions of working on it each weekend and on the occasional weekday after work but I have found Clearing work so all consuming and tiring that my piles of notes and books have been gathering dust, untouched and unloved for the last few weeks. I have missed my counselling work that I had to stop in late May realising that I would not have the energy to give to clients while working full time. I am sure that it has been the right choice for me and I look forward to organising more once I have handed in this last work. However, I am not the only one who has neglected the project over the summer. Emails are starting to flow between my fellow students asking questions about what is expected, looking for support and trying to stem the feelings of rising panic as the countdown to October 1st progresses.

My work this summer has been so different from the last two Clearings where I was in the midst of all the buzz of the Clearing room, taking call after call, working in a large team and having the latest updates called out to us. Working as part of the reception team on the Greenwich campus I have been the ‘buddy’ for my two ‘newbies’ Carita and Avneet.  Remembering how much help I needed during my first Clearing, I have tried to help them as much as I was helped and they have been great fun to work with.  Our supervisor is Tony who is based year round in Greenwich for appointments and drop-in queries. He is fun to work with and has finally learnt to make my builders’ tea with no sugar. However he is a horror about bringing in cakes for us.  He really just can’t believe that I really don’t want him to bring any more in for me because I will just eat them and I would prefer to eat fruit.

As well as talking to people face-to-face I have been doing Live chat – our new instant messaging service.  Sometimes we are asked the strangest questions and I am planning to gather together some of our more ‘interesting’ queries.  On Friday one person (I will call him/her Jo) was asking about the BSc (Hons) Business programme.  The conversation went something like this:

Jo:      Please explain what this means: “Students are assessed through examinations and in-course assessments, including presentations, problem solving activities, dragon's den project and computer-simulated exercises.”

 and what does problem solving activities mean exactly?

…and Dragon’s den project?

…and computer-simulated exercises?

…and how would I know how to do these things

Alice:  Problem solving activities are the setting up of various scenarios where you have to work out solutions to the problems that are presented
You come to study the course so that you learn how to do these sorts of things. You are not expected to know how to do it all before you start the course.
Jo:      Well I don’t think I would like to do that.  Why do they do those instead of just doing exams?
Alice:  Because it is meant to simulate situations that you may encounter in the work place and help prepare you for them.  That is the aim of the course.
Jo:      Well what other course will get me the same job but with just exams and what sort of jobs can I get?
Alice:  No course guarantees you a job.  You have to apply for them and it depends on where your interests lie.  I suggest you read up about the different courses in our online prospectus and see what interests you.  You are the only one who can make the final decision on the course best suited to you.
Jo:      Thank you.  That is very good advice.
Alice:  You’re welcome J

Sometimes I find all that training in the use of restraint and diplomacy so useful in counselling comes in very handy!  It is lovely to be able to sort out problems face to face with people who have been struggling to do it by phone or email and sometimes people I have been live chatting with come into see us.

I do find it difficult to deal with too many live chats at once.  Our system was set up at first so that you chatted with six at a time. That pretty much did me in as I imagined being Andy Murray with the tennis ball machine. I got mixed up with who was asking what and with having to look up websites etc people were giving up waiting and getting really annoyed. Luckily it was reset to four at a time but I find that two to three is about as many as I can manage at a time.

How I feel after dealing with too many live chats at once

However having to do Live chat my typing speed has increased but I was getting very distressed at the number of my typos.  I had to keep writing ‘Please excuse the above typo – I meant ---’ . You can only imagine my relief when I discovered that it was quite okay and all you do is put an asterisk with the correct spelling – text-speak.  Avneet thought my excitement over this discovery hilarious.  I had to sternly remind her of my aversion to facebook / twitter and my advanced age.

Pic credit; Tennis cartoon: