‘Mind the age gap’: Durham’s senior freshers


After working for 30 years in telecom engineering, Michael Webber decided that he wanted something different. So he applied to Durham and is now studying Liberal Arts on a foundation year.

Born in Walls End, Michael settled in Darlington at the age of 16. Over the course of his life, he’d gone global; and after living in California and Paris among other places, attending university “felt like unfinished business”.

The lightbulb moment came while he was chatting to close friend Frank Worthington, lecturer on Human Resource Management at Newcastle University. As Durham was the local university, it only made sense to apply there.

Securing the place was something of an uphill battle. Due to the time that had passed since taking his O and A levels, he had forgotten many of the details of his qualifications.

“The experience has been “humbling”.

Thankfully for him, the department got in contact with Michael and asked him to interview on the strength of his personal statement. He was very pleased with the “exemplary” foundation centre – with the exception of the University’s “poor room numbering”.

Since the start of his course, he has found the foundation year is “everything I had hoped for”. These sentiments were echoed by his friend, and fellow senior, Amaryllis ‘Ann’ Belladonna, who marvelled at “how far we’ve come in three weeks”.

She has found the adjustment strange because, she explained, “we have spent a lifetime raising children, organising our lives: we’re good at things. And we’re starting here like children.”

“I’m not here for a degree, I’m here to be at university”

It has been challenging; as freshers who, for years, felt like they had finished with education, “we have no clue how you expect us to do things”.

Overall, they have found the experience has been “humbling”.

Ann is a resident of Kent, who decided against completing her A levels and attending university, instead, spending her life working. Now in her fifties, she decided to apply for higher education.

As “the family’s grown-up” and she’s found more time to herself, she claimed, “Over the last few years I’ve found I just wanted to learn. I should have gone to university when I was young, but I didn’t value it”.

Ann is in her first year of a liberal arts degree, though she has already completed a foundation year here. Michael agreed with her sentiments on the joy of academia, saying “I’m not here for a degree, I’m here to be at university. It’s all about the learning.”

The pair also agreed that the hindsight given to them by age was what made them value learning. They were quick to note that many of the younger students were very “career-focused”, attending university “mainly so they wouldn’t have to work a low paying job”.

“This is the sort of thing were age makes you realise the value of education,” Michael said.

“I should have gone to university when I was young, but I didn’t value it”.

Both students are at Stevenson, and although Michael lives out, they have found the college experience to be rewarding. Ann has particularly enjoyed living in postgraduate accommodation, as there are students who share her enthusiasm.

Both Michael and Ann have found that the best way to quench their thirst for knowledge is with a liberal arts degree, which they agreed makes for a more diverse curriculum.

Despite their passion for learning being very much fulfilled, both reported occasionally feeling “invisible” due to the age gap between them and the majority of students.

Michael went to the Freshers’ Fair with bounding enthusiasm, but when he approached the drama table “their eyes just glazed over” him. “It was like they just didn’t see me,” he said.

Ann had a similar experience at a tutorial. When the discussion was opened, the rest of the first-year students, who were all 18-20, talked amongst themselves while she was left at a table on her own.

Neither have let these setbacks affect them, claiming that they don’t “take it personally” and, when asked if they felt their age mattered, answered with a definitive “no”.

They have thus been able to enjoy their studies and are looking forward to even more years of challenging discussion, churning out essays, and trying desperately to work out the room numbers.

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