AM I TOO OLD? – Returning to University

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I am back at university; back as a 65-year-old pensioner, 44 years after graduating from Bristol University with my first degree and then qualifying as a Barrister in 1976. I am leaving a long career in law on hold, whilst I study for a one-year MA in newspaper journalism.

I returned to study after my son suggested it as something to do on a sabbatical. Looking for a career break, I applied to City, University of London, without giving it much thought, and was accepted. I started my course in early October. I chose journalism because of my frequent forays into the world of news media. I refer to my ‘Opinion’ pieces and letters in the Chronicle and my political blog ‘Llanito World’ (now on Facebook).

What led me to study again, so late in life, is the desire to pursue a university course outside Gibraltar that will help me adjust my outlook generally. Life as a lawyer narrows one’s thinking and viewpoint in many ways. Using modern jargon, I am following a path for a while that will help change the ‘chip in my head’.

A fresh-faced Robert as a student of Bristol University in 1972.

I will see the year through but, if I drop out at 65, it won’t matter much. Dropping out back in the early 1970’s, which crossed my mind then, would have fundamentally changed my life. Studying at that time was not exactly my main priority – it was the era of hippies and free rock festivals after all! Even the Glastonbury festival, down the road from Bristol, was free, although smaller in those days.

Studying something new will broaden my outlook, open my mind to different perspectives, and enable me to apply my life experiences in other ways. Importantly, I will learn new things. My experience will be enhanced by living in London, with everything it has to offer, including the privacy and anonymity that is impossible to have in Gibraltar.

The decision to return to university is one thing, but arriving at the Department of Journalism on the first day of Induction Week (at my age it wasn’t Freshers’ Week!) was another. Trepidation was my overriding emotion, not to call it sheer fear.

I was met by students in their early 20’s, looking at a grandfather! My self-consciousness led me to thoughts of what might be going on in their heads, on seeing me waiting for the lecturer (younger than me) to arrive.

Thankfully, soon after, as I mingled and spoke with other students, barriers started to fall away and are still falling. I began to feel more comfortable, though I had to make much of the initial effort. Today, a few months into the course, I mix easily, with the only slightly noticeable difference being an element of respect.

In some regards, the impact of my age difference is reduced by the contrast between being in London from my time at Bristol. There is less of the collegiate life that I experienced at Bristol. It feels more like going to work, than being a time-rich student immersed in university life.

Being taught is what I have had to get used to most. Studying is not the issue: practising law is a constant process of research and learning throughout. There is a huge difference, however, between self-development and being taught. Lectures allow for little interaction. I find myself biting my lips frequently, holding back from asking that question or making an argument.

Part of getting used to a return to university is the massive personal differences at my stage of life. My time at Bristol, and later in London studying for my Bar qualification, was coloured by the knowledge that my ability to practice as a lawyer depended on qualifying. Today little turns on how well or badly I do in my degree, save that I am driven by my own competitiveness. It is primarily about the experience and what I learn.

This differentiates me from other students. They are at the start of their working lives, aspiring to move into long term careers as journalists, much turns for them on how well they will do.

I am very conscious of what other students aspire to and that much depends for them on doing well. I take a full part in tutorials and workshops but keep my constant desire to intervene controlled. I hesitate frequently with a view to allowing others the chance to take an active part but never leaving unsaid something that I think is fundamental.

I have one small grumble (that, perhaps, is allowed at my age). There is an expectation that all are able to quickly pick up on how to use I.T. software needed for some parts of the course and assignments. Perhaps this expectancy arises because most students are young and so are more computer savvy than a 65-year-old! There again, it’s just another hill that I need to climb: there have been many in my life.

Outside the formal parts of the course, I am impressed by the personal interest taken in students by the lecturers of the Department. In my case, they are aware of my interest in politics; so much so, that the lecturer, who heads my group in the interviewing module, chose me to be one of three students who interviewed Meg Hillier at the House of Commons. She is MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I interviewed her on Brexit, so I asked how it might affect Gibraltar. Meg Hillier displayed knowledge of Gibraltar but had no specific information of how Brexit might impact it, beyond saying that its situation would have to be taken into account.

All in all, I am liking my return to university at my ripe old age (for a student!). I decided to go back with a minimum of thought but I have no regrets. I miss Gibraltar, my friends and Gibraltar politics but I will return re-invigorated with my new ‘chip’ installed.

BY ROBERT VASQUEZ