A Letter to the Hesitant Mature Student: Going Back to School

I began a second undergraduate degree at the age of 27. I first graduated at the age of 22 with an Honours BSc in Biology from a respected school, and spent 4 years bouncing between jobs and cities, reading, researching, taking art classes, making friends, becoming a yoga teacher, adopting cats, travelling, and casually tackling the festering question that resided in the pit of my stomach: what do I actually want to do with my life?

I certainly didn’t want to do anything that I could do with that pesky Biology degree that I had stubbornly forced myself to complete. It is a point of pride for me that I managed to finish that degree, but it was only out of a sheer unwillingness to quit, and definitely not out of passion for my major.

Image obtained from Neurohacker Collective, 2019.

My lifelong interest in nutrition combined with the fact that I would obtain the professional Registered Dietitian designation at the end of my studies led me to decide to return to school to study Nutrition & Food. It was a 50% passionate and 50% practical decision, and I am very happy that I did it.

Historically, nutrition has been full of binaries in my life. I have found much joy and pain from my relationship with food and my body. I’ve been a strong, competitive athlete and an anxious crash-dieter at different points in my life. I’ve experienced mental anguish surrounding food and also always found joy and creativity in the cooking and eating experience. I’ve held strong beliefs about veganism and then adopted a diet inclusive of animal products. I’ve thought that white bread was the devil, that fries would make me gain weight instantly, and that low fat, sugar free yogurt was the only logical choice. I’ve felt extreme guilt about enjoying cakes and beers and hearty pasta dishes, even if those food items were consumed in the presence of loved ones. I’ve felt strongly that I had secret food sensitivities that were sabotaging my health. I’ve come full circle to include almost all foods in my diet, and experienced first-hand what it feels like to rid yourself of the psychological torment of food guilt.

To put it lightly: I’m passionate about food and food relationships.

So I decided that I should go back to school and study Nutrition and Food formally and become a Registered Dietitian. The things that almost held me back were: my student debt and my own insecurities about the idea that I should be at a different life stage for my age. The Government of Ontario made tuition free (for a brief but blissful period of time) for low & middle income individuals, and that was the push I needed to jump back into school .

Before my first semester even began, I’d spent hours in reading blogs and combing forums for affirmation that my second degree decision was the right one. I found a lot of people saying it was not. Why go back to school for a second undergraduate degree when you could get a Masters? Why not start a business with the money instead? Why plunge yourself deeper into debt instead of crawling out of it? So instead of ruminating on all the should’ve/would’ve/could’ve’s, let’s talk about the positives!

Firstly, as a mature student, I’m not at school to f*ck around. I’m there to learn everything I can possibly learn so that, upon graduation, I am an expert in my field. This is not the attitude that I approached my first degree with. I was 18, and I wanted a degree. I didn’t have a mentor to guide me, and I chose my degree poorly. But I can’t live my life regretting my 18 year old mistakes, and there are much worse things to do than obtain a Bachelor of Science. I could have gotten into drugs, but instead I got really into the intricate anatomy of plants and animals and ecosystems!

Because I’m at school to actually learn, I am able to obtain high grades (which is essential for getting selected for the competitive Dietitians of Canada internships & Master’s programs). I engage with the course content in a way that was foreign to me in my first degree, as I struggled to keep my head above water and maintain sanity at the same time. Keep in mind, I’m writing this before applying for internships, so these words could be my famous last ones!

I’m more confident in approaching my professors to ask questions about the course and their careers. I speak in class and pose questions during lectures. I go to office hours. I choose courses wisely, based on skills I’d like to develop or knowledge I’d like to specialize in.

I’ve been able to seize opportunities that would have floated past me in previous years. I volunteer rigorously, and was even selected for a humanitarian outreach trip to India. It’s been a beautiful and fulfilling, yet exhausting and mentally draining experience returning to school at an older age.

I’m 28 while I write this, and I’m fully aware of my youth and the many wonderful years I have ahead of me. However, it is easy to feel old when you are a full decade older than some of your peers. I’ve come to rest in a tranquil place called “I don’t care” in regards to my age, and instead am harnessing the power that comes with having a little bit of life experience before embarking on something as significant as a degree. I think that if you are in a position to go back to school for something you are passionate about, then you will succeed. If your first degree wasn’t a great experience, your second one might be a beautiful success story because you will have more awareness and conviction about your wants and needs. Universities are filled with resources to help and guide students, the problem is that too many students don’t access these services and end up missing opportunities, or in the worst cases, suffering in silence. A mature student is more likely to leverage the opportunities available to them.

I do recommend going back to school, as long as you are sure about the path. I will be 30 when I’m finally a Registered Dietitian. I will be starting my career later than some, but earlier than others. I will be starting my career with a high level of motivation and a different sense of urgency than someone who graduated with their entire 20’s ahead of them.

One of my best friends in my previous degree, when I was 20/21, was a 32 year old woman that I marvelled at for how young she looked and how calm and organized she stayed during exam season. Now, it’s my turn to smile when my peers try to guess my age and send me panicked texts about exam content.

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