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You’re never too old for University

Lotte Brundle describes what it’s like to be an undergraduate at one of Cambridge’s ‘mature’ colleges (reproduced by kind permission of Varsity).

When I didn’t apply for University at the age of 18, unlike the majority of my school peers, I was often worried that I’d ‘missed the boat’. Certainly, the idea of becoming a fresher in the same year that the rest of my friends would be graduating felt like a daunting prospect. However, like a fine wine, for me at least, starting University only got better with age.

Studying for an undergraduate degree at an over 21’s college is such a unique experience. You forget sometimes that most of the students in the same year as you are 18. This, I think, is mainly because, as any student at a collegiate university knows, college life is similar to being in a family bubble — a bit like how I imagine being sorted into ‘Ravenclaw’ or ‘Slytherin’ might be at Hogwarts. You become so involved in life at your college that the concept of an alternative becomes unimaginable. It seems strange then, to me, to acknowledge that studying at a ‘mature’ college is, for most people, not the norm…

What is a ‘mature’ college?

All Cambridge colleges admit mature students — mature meaning not that one has to have a deep appreciation for an evening spent with a nice glass of red accompanied by a charcuterie board (although, I certainly do) — it simply means that in order to apply you must be over 21 years old when the academic year starts. So, while all colleges do admit mature students, there are three that do this exclusively: St Edmunds College, Wolfson College and, my personal favourite, Hughes Hall.

An unexpected offer

If you go to Cambridge and haven’t heard of any of these colleges before, then it’s likely that you’re not alone. I certainly hadn’t when I applied to study here; I can’t speak for the other two mature colleges, but Hughes Hall definitely tends to be one of the more unheard-of colleges (if you’re looking for a Hughes Hall shout-out on Camfess, don’t hold your breath). When I applied, at the age of 19, I was too young to even consider a ‘mature’ college, so I applied to a different college instead. Upon being ‘pooled’, and because of my slightly older age, Hughes gave me a deferred offer to come and study with them when I turned 21, and I am forever grateful that they did!

So, what’s different about studying at a mature college?

Being an undergraduate at a mature college definitely placed me firmly in the minority — most students at Hughes are undertaking a master’s degree or a Ph.D., which definitely creates a different atmosphere to a college where most students are younger undergraduates.

Although being 21 makes me an ‘old’ fresher to the rest of the University, at Hughes, being 21 makes me the ‘baby’ of the house. However, this diversity in age, knowledge, and experience is actually my favourite thing about studying at Hughes Hall. Because there are far fewer undergraduates, you bond instantaneously, especially because many of them have had the same strange 2-3 years in limbo before starting their studies. And, on the other side of things, living with purely postgraduates this year has really pushed me to work harder academically; when you’re just starting out with your degree, to share a toaster with academics that are specialists and sometimes even pioneers in their respective fields is incredibly inspiring (and also sometimes a little intimidating).

In seminars with other undergraduates, I’ve noticed a subtle difference in how my peers from Hughes interact with the teaching. I feel like we share a lack of reserve and trepidation that can only come from having waited two years to get here; the fact that I waited so long to come here really makes me eager to grab every opportunity to engage with my subject with both hands. After three years working on minimum wage in the hospitality sector, it really is a privilege to be able to learn full time.

My other favourite thing about living at Hughes is that the people here always have the best stories, often many of them have had a round about route back into education — whether that be travelling, working, or studying in a completely different field. Students at Hughes are varied, fascinating, and unequivocally the friendliest people I’ve met in Cambridge so far.

Why you should consider applying to a ‘mature’ college

Of course, it goes without saying that every student at Cambridge thinks their college is the best. Granted, Hughes Hall doesn’t have a hidden swimming pool, private chapel or particularly famous history. A modest, reasonably modern group of buildings tucked away behind the leisure centre on the edge of Parker’s Piece makes Hughes one of Cambridge’s more understated colleges. However, it is precisely Hughes’ unassuming nature and humble reputation that makes it one of the most welcoming and sociable places to live and to learn. Although I came to Cambridge for an academic education, I’m slowly finding that I am receiving an equally, if not more valuable, education through the wisdom and shared experiences of fellow Hughes’ students around me. And this is something that I feel will go on to shape and influence my life in a way that a degree alone never could.

At the end of the day, age really does come with wisdom; More importantly, it comes with student accommodation equipped with fully functioning kitchens complete with hobs and ovens.

So, whilst having two years out before starting my degree was never in my plan, it gave me such a unique opportunity. And I am forever grateful to whoever it was in the Hughes Hall admissions department that plucked my mediocre personal statement out of the swirling ‘pool’ of hopefuls three years ago. I say this, because getting the chance to study at Hughes – and now I’m afraid I’m certainly running the risk of sounding cliched – was a ‘golden ticket’ of an opportunity. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

12 June 2021