An older student contacted me with some rather specific questions and concerns about OSAP. I won’t repeat them here and I’m still seeking clarification from her on some points, but she wrapped up with a very significant question:
How can I bring awareness regarding the financial difficulties of mature students, and undo common assumptions of mature students?
Bringing awareness is really just another term for advocacy. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and I wish I could draw a clear roadmap for it, but I can’t. There are many different opinions about what constitutes effective advocacy and how to go about doing it. But I can, at least, give you a sense of where to start.
One of the things that hampers mature students in advocating for their needs is that they are very often invisible – even to each other. You may think you are alone but it simply isn’t true. It’s very common for older students to be in university today. But assumptions persist, and even older students are susceptible to them. They see students in their late twenties and early thirties and think they just look a bit mature for their age. They pass each other in the hall and assume that older person must be a professor or another employee of the university. Not until two mature students are actually sitting next to each other in a classroom do they tend to acknowledge each other as such, and quite often that just doesn’t happen. So mature students remain ignorant of each other.
One of the things I did at Univerity of Toronto Scarborough was arrange a meeting among mature students on campus. We had perhaps a dozen show up at the original meeting. It was really quite an eyeopener for everyone involved, including myself. Shared experiences around balancing home life and school, navigating the university environment, adapting to new technology, and more. Everyone left the meeting feeling much less alone in his or her experiences at school. I wish I could tell you that this group shook the foundations of the university and changed everything. Frankly, I don’t know. I left the group to its devices and moved onto the next thing. But I know they had big plans. And I know that at very least they made new friends.
To advocate on a local level, you need to have a common voice. That could be a simple as forming a mature students’ organization – which is almost certainly as easy as filling out a form. Generating participation is harder, especially among busy people. But in my experience there is a real hunger among mature students to at least become aware of and to support each other. It may be as simple as a meeting for coffee every couple of weeks. But that can still be a big deal.
For help with organizing I’d suggest your first stop should be your local students’ union. I know it can seem strange turning to teenagers and early twenty-somethings for help. But they really know the most about organizing on campus. They have the resources to help you promote your activities. And if your student union is worth spit they’ll appreciate the value of having mature students advocating for their needs along with everyone else. They may be able to help with advancing your issues too, once you know more clearly what they are.
I know I’m making this sound like a lot of work. Unfortunately, all advocacy rather assumes there’s at least someone willing to get a ball rolling and give it some momentum. But I think if you can at least put in enough time and effort to get a small collection of older students in a room together you’ll find there’s energy enough to keep the thing moving. Bring a pad and paper and you’ll be automatically in charge of the agenda. Free food, incidentally, gets everyone out. Even older students. Though I’ve found older students are more fond of veggies and dip and coffee than pizza and soda.
If you can at least reach the point where some group exists (and I genuinely just mean a dozen people with common concerns who are able to sit in a room together) you may well be amazed at how fast people start paying attention. At my initial meeting with mature students, the Vice-President and Principal of the university showed up on his own initiative. He was that eager to meet with people. Universities love older students. They may not be great at accommodating them, but they’ll definitely want to listen.
I could continue on with strategies and discussion about mature student issues. They go far beyond financial concerns, which was the initial question. But really the best advocacy happens before the problem even occurs. You simply need to convince people that you’re watching and train them to think of you. When policies are being drafted and plans are getting made, someone at the table (even if you aren’t there) is likely to say, “yeah, and how does this affect mature students?” If you can reach that point, where the question simply becomes a routine part of analysis, then you’ve won. It really isn’t an impossible goal either. Responsible authorities routinely ask how their plans affect minorities of various sorts. You just need to get your own minority profile on that list.
Everyone tends to think in terms of the younger undergraduates, straight out of high school. All of the information is geared towards them. Very often there are special rules or exceptions for older students and the issues that affect them, but you really have to dig to find them. I’m going to call this information bias. And it’s a real problem.
Students are very often ill-informed or under-informed about their rights and the resources available to them. Often they rely on informing one another rather than learning from websites, handbooks, etc. So when you take mature students you’ve got a lot of factors against them. The information is harder to find in the first place. They may be less savvy with technology and websites, where the information is often found. And they may not know any other mature students to share what they’ve learned.
The student who originally contacted me was, I think, less than perfectly informed about what is available to her as a mature student. But that of itself is a big problem. Even a few vocal advocates can help correct this information bias, both by demanding that the authorities make information relevant to mature students more obvious and accessible (perhaps even centralized!) and by disseminating it to other mature students. The list of potential issues is very long. Daycare bursaries. Family benefits in health and dental plans. Issues around assets and how they affect financial aid. I can’t even begin to list them all. But the surest way to learn about all this is from other students who are also affected. And older students, in my experience, make damn fine advocates. Even on a fragment of the time available to their younger peers.
Questions are welcome at email@example.com. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.