Mature learning for beginners (Aug 2009)

A friend from amateur dramatics, Tracey, is giving up her job, selling her flat and returning to full time education as a mature student.  She’s going to Aberystwyth to study for a degree in drama.  This pleases me, not least because it was me who offered her her first break as an actor by casting her in a one-act play some years ago, though I am struck by the courage of a woman in her early 40s making such a life-changing decision.  Maybe she will go on to teach drama, or even earn a living through playing character roles.  I wish her every success.

The parallels with my own foray into postgraduate education are worth exploring.  I was 40 when I started my MBA at Henley Management College (as it then was.)  Admittedly this was not full-time education, since I was doing a full-time job (albeit working for myself), and indeed had with my wife two small children to care for.  At first it seemed daunting, being surrounded by all these people in various high-powered jobs from many different sectors, but it didn’t take long to realise that I was as good as them and occasionally better.

As we went through a battery of psychometric tests and eventually got formed into syndicate groups who would work intensively together over the following two years, it became evident that our skills were complementary and that we needed to full mix to survive the various tasks imposed by this masters degree, not least the various team-oriented tasks.  In many ways, the sort of team building, trust development exercises we did were not untypical of drama classes in many ways – we did a team-based obstacle course by moon and torchlight, for example, requiring combined reasoning and effort to succeed.

Oh, and forget for a moment the fact that we ranged in age from late 20s to early 40s, we soon reverted to type.  Like students everywhere, we had a bloody good time amidst the hard work.  While most class evenings for FEMBA (Flexible Evening MBA) were held in London with a drink in the pub afterwards, we also had lovely weekends in the gorgeous facilities afforded in Henley, right on the Thames.  These included a bar with informally flexible opening hours and a snooker room, perfect for late nite drunkenness!

Then there was the international study trip.  Four options for random distribution:  China, Malaysia, Hungary and Cape Town.  Lucky for me, I got Cape Town, and what a life changing experience it was too.  On the first day, straight from the airport, we were taken to the delightful fishing & tourism town of Hermanus to see Southern Right whales right by the coast before going off to visit the Hamilton Russell vineyard.  What an introduction!!

Apart from lectures we also saw a number of businesses and talked through many of the issues applicable to sub-Saharan Africa, like migration patterns, AIDs, attracting capital, education, housing etc.  And then business and economic growth.  Then as a complete contrast, we saw the apartheid museum and took a tour of the townships and shanty towns. It was arguably one of the most haunting and emotional experiences of my life, for reasons I’ll go into another time.  And in close juxtaposition to all that, we went out and enjoyed all the night life the Western Cape has to offer along with our colleagues.  A memorable experience for many reasons.

Then suddenly the classes finished and we were on our own, completing the monumental task – the dissertation.  Maybe half the task of a PhD thesis but pretty demanding in its own right.  Actually I really enjoyed doing it and felt a total sense of anti-climax when it was over.  What would I fill this enormous hole in my life with?  The answer was amateur dramatics, but at any rate the sense of achievement from completing the MBA was palpable.  It MEANT something to me.  The only regret was the fact that my dad was too ill to attend the prize giving ceremony, but at least I can look up at my framed certificate and know that is a record of what I can achieve when I put my mind to it, quite apart from the many benefits offered by the work, the tools and techniques learned, everything.

So in a nutshell, returning to education can bring many benefits, not solely confined to the academic, important though those might be.  I’d recommend it to anyone who feels they are in danger of becoming brain dead or stuck in a dead-end career.  Financial support is available for many and the boost to your self-esteem is like a jolt of electricity.  It truly energises you and makes you want to reach your potential, go out there and grab life by the scruff of the neck – make things happen!! 😀

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