The life of a mature student

There were drinking games and teams and matching singlets, and I was way too old for all of it.

I should have seen the wrongness of it all earlier in the day, when I turned up to this med student bonding weekend, in a scrubby scout camp on the outskirts of the city, driving my family sedan, toddler seat still strapped in the back.

Making an early departure from the drunken festivities, I found someone had made it back to the bunks even earlier.

It was another mature student, another mother of a small child.

As we swatted away mozzies, we agreed we must have been the only ones there who relished this orientation camp as a chance to get more sleep than we would on a regular night at home.

Last year I returned to university to study medicine.

I never thought much about mature students when I was at uni first time around. Young students don't.

They are too busy planning awesome trekking adventures and choreographing totes amazeballs moves for the revue, nursing broken hearts and working in retail.

When eventually I did make a mature friend back then, it was only because she looked so young I didn't pick her true age.

She tolerated me saying things like, "Oh my God, you are like 32 and you are still okay to talk to", the ageist equivalent of the Australian classic, "Don't worry, Asian friend, we don't think of you as Asian."

If there was a thought that formed in my head when the term "mature" was mentioned, it was this: stop interrupting tutorials with the obscure questions, stop making reference to historic events that happened when the rest of us were still playing handball and stop showing up everyone else by delivering work to the required standard within the requested time frame.

Of course, my attitude has softened since I became a mature student myself.

Now I think of all the successful careers forged from study commenced long after high school.

In her 30s, Julia Child enrolled in a Cordon Bleu course and went on to become the television chef credited with introducing Americans to French cuisine.

At a similar age Mem Fox enrolled in a children's literature course at Flinders Uni­versity and wrote the first draft of Possum Magic.

Much has been accomplished by students even older, like a maths teacher named Eugène Ehrhart who completed a PhD at the age of 60 and gave us the Ehrhart polynomial. Now I see we mature students are not an amorphous mass, but in fact fit into three broad categories.

The mildly mature feel the age gap most acutely, even though they are the youngest. They find it demeaning that they are expected to consort with 21-year-olds who think they are sophisticated because they have lived in London for six months, which I'm sure would be galling when you are 26 years old and you have lived in Berlin for eight months.

The moderately mature differ according to gender. The men are powering through midlife crises or retrenchment, the women have managed to sidle out of full-time work upon having children and are trying to slip in a sneaky master's or an entire career change before their other half politely, gently suggests it might be time for them to help return the family budget to surplus.

The profoundly mature are empty-nesters who have grown dissatisfied with bridge, so they embark on a course of study focusing on Roman archaeology or the Brontë sisters, the academic equivalent of a world cruise, with the distinct advantage that the government will lend them money for this but not for three months on the Pacific Princess.

Being moderately mature, my year is spent fitting in classes between childcare pick-ups, accepting praise from family and friends about how I manage to do it all, secretly knowing it is much easier hanging out in cafes colouring in diagrams of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system in fluorescent pink and yellow than wrangling a gorgeous small person 24/7.

I learn not to feel sorry for myself with my grown-up responsibilities.

Younger students have it easier in some ways, harder in others.

Some have the luxury of living in the parental home; they may also endure an hour on a bus and half an hour on a train to get to class.

Some have had to move cities or continents for this chance to study. They work at jobs with crappy pay, so they have to work longer hours.

The time when those of my generation went to university the first time around has already been rendered the olden days.

Its feel was captured best in the 1996 indie film Love and Other Catastrophes.

The characters wear op-shop jackets, talk too much about postmodernism and struggle with the Soviet-style university bureau­cracy.

Mia, played by Frances O'Connor, battles to be released from one department so she can study with another.

Academics are idiosyncratic, with power over students; students have not yet become petulant customers who demand value for money.

Grunge was the uniform; students would never dream of prancing about campus in hoodies stamped with the university logo, as some do now.

When students complain that an occasional lecture is not available to podcast within a few hours of being delivered, I think of how our lectures were not recorded at all.

When exam results came out we had to physically travel to campus to decode our results from student numbers and marks listed on sheets of paper pinned to wooden noticeboards.

The year ends and the Facebook feeds of the young and not-so-young diverge.

They leave for the summer, I stay behind.

They chronicle trips through Cambodia, Belize, Nepal, drunken parties in skirts shorter than I will ever be able to wear again.

Mine fills with snaps of a newborn, swaddled in blankets, in the same hospital where we had spent the year following doctors around, hesitantly practising our respiratory examinations, pausing momentarily to confirm we have our stethoscopes around the right way.

My year taught me I am not young any more. I am the cliché of the mature student and I don't even care.

Growing older is about becoming what you once despised, and finding yourself quite pleased about it.

Have you gone back to school as a mature student? What was your biggest challenge? If you'd studied before, was it easier or harder the first time around?

-Sydney Morning Herald