Is 18 too young for col­lege?

For the next gen­er­a­tion of school leavers, press­ing pause be­fore rush­ing into third level ed­u­ca­tion might be a smart move, writes Ce­line Naughton

Irish Independent - - Living & Features -

It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted that the path from school to col­lege is a di­rect one, but for some of the 55,000 sec­ondary school grad­u­ates anx­iously await­ing the re­sults of the Leav­ing Cert next week, it might be worth con­sid­er­ing a more cir­cuitous route.

Their av­er­age age is 18, but with stu­dents hav­ing had lit­tle by way of life ex­pe­ri­ence out­side the class­room, would they do bet­ter by tak­ing a year or more off be­fore knuck­ling down to four years of study? They could travel, or do a Post Leav­ing Cert (PLC) course as a trial be­fore com­mit­ting to a full-on de­gree.

They could work and save for col­lege, de­velop life skills not taught at school, dis­cover what they like to do and ex­plore new ca­reer op­tions in the ever-chang­ing world of work.

“If a stu­dent feels he/she is not quite ready for col­lege, for what­ever rea­son, it may be wise to de­fer for a year,” says Cather­ine O’Con­nor, Ed­u­ca­tion Con­sul­tant at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin and au­thor of Crack­ing the Col­lege Code — A Prac­ti­cal Guide to Mak­ing the Most of the First Year Col­lege

Ex­pe­ri­ence. “Peer pres­sure doesn’t make that an easy choice, but some­times it’s best to leave the pack.

“How­ever, there is no right or wrong age to start col­lege, any more than there’s a right age to get mar­ried. The key to get­ting the best ex­pe­ri­ence is in choos­ing the right course and col­lege to suit the in­di­vid­ual stu­dent. You need a plan, and to make an in­formed choice, there needs to be a lot of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween par­ents and chil­dren.

“The so­cial as­pect is hugely im­por­tant: 62pc of stu­dents say they find it dif­fi­cult to fit in so­cially, par­tic­u­larly in the larger col­leges. I en­cour­age them to stick with it. The first se­mes­ter is the most chal­leng­ing, as that’s when stu­dents re­alise they’re largely left to their own de­vices.

“They have to man­age their own time, at­tend lec­tures, study, meet dif­fer­ent peo­ple and per­haps jug­gle a part-time job.”

When Maria Maguire from Car­ling­ford, Co Louth, first went to col­lege at the age of 19, she took a part-time job in an off-li­cence — and later re­alised it was giv­ing her more job sat­is­fac­tion than her course work.

Three years into her art col­lege de­gree, she re­alised the sub­ject she’d cho­sen wasn’t for her af­ter all and she dropped out.

“It was a very hard de­ci­sion, es­pe­cially as my par­ents had sup­ported me and there was only a year to go,” she re­calls. “How­ever, I was en­joy­ing the buzz of re­tail and meet­ing peo­ple, and I wanted art to re­main in some­thing I loved rather than some­thing I had to do, so I de­cided to change di­rec­tion.”

She be­gan a ca­reer in re­tail man­age­ment, spend­ing much of her 20s trav­el­ling the coun­try in her job with a depart­ment store chain. That changed when her son Liam was born, and Maria found that be­ing a new mum wasn’t con­ducive to con­stant travel.

“For the next 13 years I drifted be­tween Com­mu­nity Em­ploy­ment (CE) schemes and con­tract work — six months here, a year there,” she says.

“I built up years of ex­pe­ri­ence, but had no qual­i­fi­ca­tions. When I turned 40 I thought, if I’m ever go­ing to do some­thing about that, now is the time. But I wanted more from col­lege than just a qual­i­fi­ca­tion. I wanted sta­bil­ity and struc­ture in my life.”

She en­rolled for a busi­ness and man­age­ment de­gree at Dun­dalk IT and af­ter three years was elected pres­i­dent of the Stu­dents’ Union. She took this past year out to de­vote her­self to that role, and has one more year to com­plete her hon­ours de­gree, af­ter which she hopes to work in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, par­tic­u­larly stu­dent re­ten­tion and re­cruit­ment.

From her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, Maria sees no need for school leavers to rush into third level ed­u­ca­tion. “As a mother, I’d like my son to do a PLC course af­ter the Leav­ing as a step­ping stone to col­lege, to give him­self a chance to see if he re­ally likes the sub­ject he’s in­ter­ested in,” she says. “If you hate a sub­ject, it’s bet­ter to find out sooner rather than later.

“As pres­i­dent of the Stu­dents’ Union, I try to make sure stu­dents are fully aware of all the sup­ports avail­able, and help them man­age the tran­si­tion to col­lege life, which is very

I wanted more from col­lege than just a qual­i­fi­ca­tion. I wanted sta­bil­ity and struc­ture in my life

dif­fer­ent from the school ex­pe­ri­ence.”

John For­tune from Wex­ford made the leap from school to col­lege at 17 when he en­rolled for busi­ness stud­ies and Chi­nese in Water­ford IT. Af­ter two years, it dawned on him that he’d be only 21 when he grad­u­ated.

He didn’t want to be that young set­ting out into the world of full-time work, so he de­ferred for a year, dur­ing which he worked as Ed­u­ca­tion Of­fi­cer with the col­lege’s Stu­dents’ Union.

“Start­ing col­lege at 17 took me so far out of my com­fort zone, it was sink or swim time and I de­cided to swim,” says John. “I’m more con­fi­dent and out­go­ing as a re­sult, but I have no doubt that other stu­dents would have dropped out.

The first year at col­lege can be lonely for a 17-year-old. You miss out on the so­cial as­pect be­cause your friends go out to bars and clubs, and you can’t be part of that be­cause you’re un­der age. “I ad­vise oth­ers to wait un­til they’re at least 18 or even older be­fore start­ing col­lege. Do a PLC course, or take a year out to dis­cover your­self. Do some­thing you en­joy, some­thing you’re pas­sion­ate about, and you’ll grow as a per­son. The ideal time to start col­lege is not about age, it’s about ma­tu­rity.”

Dubliner Pat Cur­ran was more ma­ture than most when he en­rolled at the Na­tional Col­lege of Art and De­sign 10 years ago at the age of 51.

“I left school at 15 with no qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” he says. “I had a se­ries of dead-end jobs over the years, but was largely un­em­ployed, and then some­thing hap­pened that changed my life. My wife Breda and I had two grownup chil­dren when she be­came preg­nant with our son Luke af­ter a gap of 18 years.

“It made me re­think ev­ery­thing. I did a CE course where an art teacher spot­ted some po­ten­tial and en­cour­aged me to ap­ply for a year-long art and de­sign port­fo­lio course in Bal­lyfer­mot Col­lege. I got a place, but al­most at the same time I was also of­fered a job as a sup­port worker. I had a choice to make: take the of­fer of full-time em­ploy­ment for the first time in many years, or go to col­lege.

“I was torn. In the end I fol­lowed my heart and chose col­lege. The port­fo­lio course led to me get­ting a place in the Na­tional Col­lege of Art and De­sign, through the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Ac­cess Route.

“I wouldn’t have been ma­ture enough at 18 to go to col­lege, but at 51, I knuck­led down, went to ev­ery sem­i­nar and did ev­ery­thing I was sup­posed to do. The first two years were hard, but I stuck with it. I’m not a quit­ter. Then in the third year it all came to­gether for me. Af­ter the four-year de­gree course I did a two-year MA, and loved it.”

Pat now paints in a stu­dio in St An­drew’s Com­mu­nity Cen­tre, Rialto, run by the

Com­mon Ground com­mu­nity arts or­gan­i­sa­tion. In­spired by im­ages supplied by lo­cal res­i­dents, his paint­ings cre­ate a pow­er­ful so­cial doc­u­men­tary of life in work­ing class Dublin.

“I feel blessed to have found this oc­cu­pa­tion at such a late stage in my life,” says Pat.

“It’s given me a pur­pose, and made me re­alise that life is all about change. If any­one else is think­ing of go­ing to col­lege, at any age, take my ad­vice — you’re never too old, it’s not too late, and you can do it.”

Good ad­vice: Cather­ine O’Con­nor

PHOTO: CIARA WILKIN­SON

Tough call: Maria Maguire dropped out of col­lege the first time around, only to re­turn when she was 40

Con­fi­dence boost: John For­tune de­ferred for a year

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