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The experiences of mature nursing students: achievements against the odds

10 November 2022
Volume 31 · Issue 20

The abolition of the student bursary for nurse education in 2017 led to a decrease of 15.2% in mature nursing students (Office for Students, 2019). Before this, the average age of a student nurse at entry was 29.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures indicate that the number of applicants to nursing courses over the age of 20 has dropped by 40% (UCAS, 2019). This problem exists alongside the national shortage of nurses.

Mature students make a unique contribution to the nursing profession and have a variety of life experiences to bring. However, research has also shown that programmes of study for mature students are impacted by a range of factors, including caring responsibilities for children or older family members, financial responsibilities and complex learning needs following a long break from education (Christensen and Craft, 2021), particularly in the digital era where familiarity with technology is essential.

Kevern and Webb (2003) emphasised how the experience of mature students does not align with those of school- or college-age leavers. Recruitment strategies must acknowledge the complexities associated with studying and attending placement while balancing competing responsibilities if we are to attract mature nursing students back to the profession.

This article presents the unique experiences of four mature nursing students who completed a programme of nurse education in 2021. The perspectives of these women aims to shine a light on the initial draw to nursing and the commitment and dedication shown to achieve their goals while juggling their roles as mothers, primary wage earners and student nurses.

Zvide: ‘the sky is the limit’

I was educated at home in Zimbabwe and was working in an accounting firm until I relocated with my two boys to the UK to join my husband. For the first 6 months I was unable to secure an office job so I did voluntary work at a day-care centre. Eventually, I got a job as a support worker at the care centre and remained in this role for almost 7 years. During my time there, I worked alongside community nurses who all encouraged me to study nursing, but I felt I was too old to go back to school and, besides, I had children to look after.

My mum, who was still in Zimbabwe, became unwell with cancer and I flew home to see her. She was looked after by amazing nurses and doctors. They were so caring and supportive. Sadly, we lost my mum, which was devastating. When I returned to the UK, I decided that I was going to make her proud. I told my family that I was going back to school to be a nurse, but I was still doubting myself because of my age and thinking about how I was going to cope. With the family supporting me, we made some enquiries at the local college, where I was told to do mathematics, English language and biology at A-level.

It was not an easy journey for me, as a mother, wife and student. I eventually completed my A-levels and then got a place at Northumbria University, which was a dream come true. I never thought I was going to be able to manage that at my age.

‘At university there was a lot of support … but it was diffcult as a mature student of colour … but with support from my lecturers I fulfilled my dream’

During my degree, I was really pushing myself and trying my best, but I faced a lot of challenges. At university there was a lot of support but, in practice, it was difficult as a mature student of colour, especially in my third year. I almost quit because of the pressure at that time but, through support from my lecturers, I fulfilled my dream, and wherever my mum is, I know she is very happy and proud.

I am determined that, as a nurse, I will give back some of what I received when my mum was unwell to other communities, hospitals and families. I would like to encourage anyone out there that, with perseverance, you will reach your goal and the sky is the limit.

Dawn: ‘my nursing journey from 16 to 56’

In May 1981 I sat my CSEs, passing them all. I had wanted to be a nurse since I was 6. I took my exam results with me to an interview for a place at college to study for a nursing diploma. Within days I was accepted and given a date in September 1981 to start my journey. However, this was not going to happen as I was offered employment as a supervisor's assistant at a Blyth manufacturing factory and took it.

Obviously, I had made the wrong decision but I continued to work until my first child was born, followed soon after by my second and third. Time flew by, my family grew, eventually having families of their own. When my daughter asked me what she should do with her life, I suggested going to college to become a midwife as she often talked with enthusiasm about looking after pregnant women. She was reluctant to go to college alone so I volunteered to go with her to do an access to nursing course, along with GCSE English and maths. Within 2 weeks of the courses starting, my daughter left and never returned, but as I had restarted a journey, I could not stop and followed it through.

Over the next 2 years, I had meltdown after meltdown. I lost my father in between my first and second years of college, which put extra pressure on studies. I was not savvy with technology and could not work a computer to the standard required. Nevertheless, I acquired all the required qualifications, was awarded ‘student of the year’ and gained a place at Northumbria University, studying the BSc honours degree in adult nursing.

As my first year at university started so did my meltdowns. On a few occasions I almost stopped studying, but was advised by friends to continue as it would be worth it in the end. It was so difficult going back into education after so many years. Learning how to reference my work was a nightmare. The book Cite them Right (Pears and Shields, 2013) was my soulmate for the 3 years of university, as was coffee to keep me up in the early hours to get my assignments done on time.

The younger generation at university had it down to a fine art – enjoying life and doing their work. I felt that all I had to give were life skills in comparison to young students who seemed so intelligent to me. However, when we were in lectures, I could answer questions and explain things being discussed; students told me I knew more than I thought.

I made it through the first year. Then I lost my mother 4 days before the start of my second year and was devastated. I had time off for bereavement, then COVID-19 hit. I opted out of my placement and, yet again, I contemplated giving up, but my student friends once more helped me through, pushing me into the third year. I have so much to thank them all for. By Christmas 2021, I had achieved my goal and finished my studies and I am finally a registered adult nurse.

I feel overwhelmed that my parents have not been here to witness this as they would have been so proud.

Karen ‘the struggle is real’

If someone had told me when I left school nearly 27 years ago that I would become a nurse, I would have laughed. At the time, I could not even watch Casualty, unless it was through my fingers.

I had spent some time in hospital with chronic osteomyelitis at the age of 11 and was frightened every time a nurse walked towards me, so nursing was never on my radar at all.

‘It is hard, there is no denying that, but the difference with this line of work is its rewarding nature’

I left school and got the qualifications I needed for administration and clerical work. Later, my father-in-law became increasingly ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had periods in and out of hospital. At the time, I put my all into understanding the disease, and realising when he was going to be poorly by noticing the signs. We had the support of a community matron who I will never forget as it was she who planted the seed that I would make a great nurse. Her reasoning was that I could read the signs and know when my father-in-law was going down hill.

After my father-in-law died, I took a look online at what I would need to do to become a nurse and then quickly dismissed it. I was working full time, on a good wage and I thought to lose that would be absolute madness. As time went on, I found myself caring for my father, who had became poorly and died unexpectedly, and for my mum, who had health issues and my husband, who had also become ill. I had left my job to stay at home and look after my husband, with frequent visits to my mum. The seed of an idea that was planted 11 years previously by the matron came to the surface again.

I had nothing to lose, so I signed up at age 38 to go to college to do an access to nursing course. My family were behind me and said they would support me. At the time, I had two younger children who were 11 and 4, and my eldest was 19 and embarking on his own career.

I was never very academic at school and college hit me like a bolt out of the blue! Harvard referencing, reports, essays, journals – the list of challenges was endless. But I got through it all and passed with flying colours and I managed to gain offers of a place at two different universities. Me going to university! I felt like I was dreaming.

When I walked into the classroom at university, my first thought was that I was the oldest in the room. I was old enough to be the majority of these students' mum but, as time went on, I realised they seemed to respect my age and it worked. Having a little age on my side, I felt benefitted me greatly; I had a number of life skills that I could put to good use, particularly in communication, which is a huge part of nursing.

Understanding patients and knowing how to communicate well with a wide variety of different people from different backgrounds came much easier, I think, because of being a more mature student.

Everything seemed to be going well and then my personal life was turned upside down with a few different things. I considered walking away from nursing altogether and concentrating on my children. I remember wondering if it was worth it.

My tutor and the university were amazing, the support they gave me helped me greatly. They helped put things into perspective for me. I realised that the guilt I felt leaving the children was normal. It was a struggle but my self-belief started to build and I passed my degree and gained employment in the role of a practice nurse. It is hard, there is no denying that, but the difference with this line of study and work is its rewarding nature.

Corley: ‘the good days give back tenfold’

My journey began after my daughter fell gravely ill with a sinusitis infection that led to multiple brain operations, months in critical care and a prosthetic skull. This experience changed my outlook on life and provided me with the tools to become a part of the medical world and hopefully have a lasting impact. A critical care nurse in particular sticks in my mind. She offered me time and advice that gave me so much hope. I remember thinking how I would love to be as amazing as her. I had struggled all through my life with confidence issues and insecurities that led to debilitating anxiety, which peaked after my daughter's recovery.

This life experience gave me the grit to put my failings behind me and achieve my lifetime ambition to gain a degree in nursing. Returning to study at 33 years old, with a family and all the responsibilities that go along with that, was to be challenging. I threw myself into preparing financially, personally and professionally with the support of my amazing family and friends, a bonus not everyone has. As I progressed through my degree, I quickly realised this support network was essential for childcare, emotional and financial support.

I was always very academic at school so, unlike a lot of mature students, the academic work scared me a lot less than the practical. My first placement was on a busy respiratory ward. My demons were creeping in and my anxieties and self-doubt were forefront in my mind, repeatedly telling myself I was not capable.

I was a complete novice to nursing and I felt expectations of mature students were generally higher. I arrived on the ward one day after an unpleasant situation had occurred and broke down in tears. This was the first, but not the last time this happened. Resilience began to grow from this point as I sought help and support from the university resources. My personal tutor gave guidance and advice and believed in me from day one, something that helped me persevere and not give up. Using all the resources that are available to you will go a long way in helping you reaching the end. Knowing that I was not the only person to be in a specific situation, facing these things head on, did help build a stronger, resilient me.

Nursing as a mature student is an emotional rollercoaster. You can come home and feel like you're on top of the world and have succeeded in your professional role and then the next day you feel you have gone back to the start and anxieties and confidence issues begin to take a hold. I would tell myself that someone like me, a teenage mum from a council estate, just can't succeed in this world.

Then there's life at home, your career consumes you. It took every single piece of my being to continue and pick myself up every day and start again. This is where the guilt kicked in; guilt of missing out on my children, sacrificing so much of their lives to pursue my career. I had to continually repeat to myself and my children that I was doing this for my family and their outlook on life would hopefully benefit. I hoped I would pass on my dedication and ambition to my three amazing girls to allow them to succeed in their lives.

To end on a positive note – I have achieved my degree and I have learned so much about myself. I have gained work in a busy emergency assessment unit in a fantastic team and I feel content with the person I am becoming. I feel worthy of my position as I have worked hard to get here. My anxiety still exists, but I have learned to control it and do not allow it to control me, the hardest hurdle I have ever had to jump. So yes, being a mature nursing student is hard but the rewards far outweigh the downsides. You meet the most amazing people from all walks of life, giving something money can never buy. Get through the hard days and the good days give back tenfold.