From Recording Engineer to Retail Worker to Future Lawyer: Nick’s Experience of University as a Thirtysomething Mature Student
Nick is a double-major in Political Science and Philosophy at UWindsor. He’s the President of UWindsor’s Philosophy Club and assistant editor to the University’s academic journal Informal Logic. Currently in his fourth year, he will be pursuing his Master’s degree in Philosophy in the Fall 2022 semester. Afterwards, he will be attending Windsor Law in order to become a human rights lawyer.
Nick is also a mature student. He began his university career in his thirties and has worked a variety of jobs from the music industry to retail before going back to school. He dealt with undiagnosed ADHD until his mid-teens. He moved to Canada as a British expat. He’s also become a dad. A pretty cool dude, to say the least.
To learn more about Nick’s fascinating life path, read our conversation below (make sure to read his replies in a British accent).
Rebecca Haddad: What brought you to go back to school at this stage of your life?
Nick: I never went to any post-secondary education right out of school. I actually failed everything in high school. It’s a little different in the UK; you leave high school at sixteen, and you get these grades called GCSE’s, and it’s your standard English math, science, geography… And to pass them, the grade has to be a C at least, and I got straight D’s and E’s on every single one. I didn’t like school at all. I had undiagnosed ADHD, and it all just seemed like a waste of my time.
But then, as soon as I left school, I didn’t know what to do. So, I tried to apply to college, which in the UK is sort of like the stepping stone to going to university. And the college in our town told me I couldn’t attend unless I had grades above the C-level, and I didn’t. So they told me to just wait a year, and then it wouldn’t matter anymore, ’cause I’d be classed as a mature student.
RH: So, you can technically get into college without a high school diploma?
N: Yeah, they just make you wait a year. So, I waited a year, and I did this course in popular music. It was a technical or vocational college, and it taught you how to do various things, like performing music or music management and music recording. And I was a bit of trouble when I was there too, like I still had ADHD, but one of the people there recognized this and put me in touch with someone who got me a diagnosis. So, I started doing better, and I found I was really good at recording. With everything else I would just scrape by, but with recording music, they would give me the highest grades.
So then they let me use the recording studio during the summer, and eventually they literally had to say: Nick, you have to stop coming to the recording studio. So, I managed to arrange to work in this little recording studio in the town I lived in, and I just started recording bands. And that was until I moved to Canada. I was recording bands professionally, I had a booking agency that managed my bookings and an agent, and I was doing really well with it.
So when I came to Canada, I was like, I’ll just get another job in music in Windsor.
RH: Hold on, can I ask why you moved to Canada?
N: So, we would have been in 2010. We found out that my partner, who is British and Canadian, was pregnant, so we had to make a decision of where we were going to live. And at the time, I had been to Canada and I liked Windsor. So, we decided we should move there. It seemed like a better place to live, because at the time, the Conservative government was coming into power in Britain, and it was all doom and gloom.
It was a pretty privileged thing, just deciding to move to another country. All I had to do was fill in the application forms because I had a Canadian child and a Canadian partner, so I could be a temporary or permanent resident. It took like a year to sort out, but it was a pretty privileged thing overall.
But when I got here, I found that there was no music scene, and that I couldn’t work in Detroit at all. I had no idea about borders, ’cause in the UK at the time, you could just go to France, to Germany, or any country in Europe. But here, I didn’t know there was this virtually militarized border between America and Canada, so I realized I couldn’t work in any of these places.
So, I had a succession of jobs that sort of killed me in different ways, and eventually I got to the end of my tether, and I was like: what am I gonna do? I had this sort of freak-out in the middle of the mall during Christmas, and I was like, maybe I should just be a lawyer. And my coworker at the mall was like, I thought you’d tried that already and it didn’t work out or something. And I was like, what?
So, I looked into law school, and then put it to the back of my mind for some reason or other. And then, in the store where I worked, I found someone had left this application brochure for Wayne State’s law school. I was like, why is this here, and my coworker was like, I was thinking of applying to law school. And I was like, really? And they were like, yeah, you can do it part-time or whatever.
So, I left the job I had and applied to university. It turned out later on that this person actually had no intention to go to law school, but they knew that if I didn’t get pushed I wouldn’t do it.
So yeah, I applied to the university, and if you’re a mature student, at least in the arts and humanities, you don’t necessarily have to have a high school diploma. You just write a statement of why you want to do it, and if you can prove that you have the right intent they let you in, and they did. And that was what got me into university.
RH: Before we move on, can I ask you what kind of jobs you had before coming to university?
N: I had a job as a satellite installer, that was the first job I ever had in Canada. And the guy who interviewed me was like, it’s great having you here, you know, because you’re eager to work. And he called me “fresh off the boat”. I thought that was good, but what he really meant was that I didn’t know any of the rules or labor laws or anything, and so he had me climbing up communications towers, with no health and safety training. I was working 12 hours a day. I never even earned minimum wage. It was really bad.
And then I got a really great job working at Future Shop. If the shop hadn’t closed down I would never have quit, I just loved it. Employees got paid really well and were looked after really well.
After that, I had to go work in the mall, and it was a horrible experience that just killed me, basically. I had a few nice jobs there and I had some really, really terrible jobs there. It just sort of smashes your spirit out.
RH: It’s like you’ve lived multiple lifetimes with all the jobs you’ve had.
N: The thing with moving to another country is that unless you go there for a specific job, it just resets everything, you start all over again. I didn’t have all of those connections and understanding of the way things were as I did back home. Like, I couldn’t just go and record bands, because I didn’t know any bands anymore. I didn’t know any recording studios I could go and work at, so everything just sort of started again.
Even on a basic level, I didn’t even understand how a driving license worked here, it’s completely different from the UK. Just all those little bits of knowledge you have about how the world works. When you move to other countries, you start all over again.
So, if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be recording bands. But moving here, you have to figure something out, or it’s just not gonna work. I just got a job as quick as I could and worked, and it sent me on a weird path. I went through all these jobs that were really unpleasant and some I really liked, and eventually I had enough. So I want to try to be a lawyer and solve the problems that I’m really annoyed with.
RH: Why human rights for law?
N: It’s mainly due to my experiences working, especially with that first job I was talking about. I realized that that comes down to employment law and human rights. I was being treated differently because I come from somewhere else and didn’t know the things that I had rights to, like health and safety training, safe workplaces.
And the same thing working in the mall. I would see that people would be fired because they had a kid. They couldn’t work weekends, so managers would give them weekend shifts until they quit, and that was normal. It wasn’t ethical, but that was how businesses operate. Or, you would look around, and people would do the same job and get paid vastly different amounts of money. Two managers in one store would have completely different salaries because of their gender.
And there’s nothing you can do about it. If you want to try and bring it up, it’s the quickest way to get yourself thrown out the door. If you wanted to do anything about it, you had to go through the court. And by the time that happened, you would have moved on.
Future Shop was a good example. It closed down overnight. They just shut down the whole company, we were all fired. That was it. They gave us all severance checks and pushed us out the door. But all of those checks were not representative of the true amount of money that we were owed.
I went to see a lawyer to talk about this. And he said, you’re right, you are probably owed some more money, this isn’t fair severance. But he just plainly asked me, are you prepared to spend a year or two years dealing with this? Or do you want to just get on with your life? And that’s a really hard position to be put in.
But it’s much harder if it had to do with being a parent and you lost your job or for some other discriminatory reason, and they say to you, do you really want to be bringing this up? Two years later? The answer for most people is no, and I just thought that was so upsetting. I was like, there has to be a way around this, but I’m not gonna be able to do anything about it if I don’t know about the law.
RH: You mentioned earlier that you struggled with school a lot when you were younger because of your undiagnosed ADHD. Can you expand on that?
N: I was in high school in the late nineties, early two-thousands. So, people didn’t really talk about ADHD very much. None of my teachers knew about it. Every report card I ever got was like, Nick is a smart student, but he is disruptive. It reads like the diagnosis sheet for ADHD. I just couldn’t keep up with the pace of school, I couldn’t be organized. I remember I would start every year with a pencil case and a set of pens and all the things you needed for school, and they were gone in two days, I’d lost them.
It wasn’t necessarily that I wasn’t interested in learning. I just couldn’t get into this sort of pace and stay engaged with things. And when you feel isolated, all you’ve really got left to do is entertain yourself, and that’s what I did. So I just caused trouble, distracted people, and made it a problem.
But now that I’ve been diagnosed with it, and that I know how to deal with it, and take medication for it, suddenly it was like being brought back down to Earth, and you can sort of engage with everything. It’s like putting a new pair of glasses on, and you look around and you’re like, wow, this is all interesting stuff. So now, I really savor education. Now, it’s such a gift to be able to learn things, but back then it was a pain to me.
RH: You said you were diagnosed when you went to college and your professor managed to see some of the signs, correct?
N: Yeah, she recognized it right off the bat. And I remember she called my parents, ’cause I was still only sixteen, and she was like: Nick has ADHD, you need to take him to a specialist.
And there was one in the whole of the UK at the time. My parents had to drive me out to this specialist. We booked an appointment, and went away for a weekend to see him.
I remember going in there, and I’m sitting at this table in front of this psychotherapist, and my parents are sitting next to me, and I’m drumming my fingers on the desk. And the guy is sort of explaining stuff for my parents, and my mum put her hand on my hands and told me to stop. And the specialist was like, don’t do that, he’s doing that so that he can concentrate.
And I was like, what? I’ve never been validated for anything that I do. It was just like: you’re a problem, you’re a troublemaker, stop doing that, you’re disruptive.
Once that happened, they put me on Ritalin, and everything started to become so much easier. It’s like when you’re trying to do an activity and you have all the wrong tools. Like you’re trying to go running, but you’re in a pair of boots or something. That’s what it’s like when you’re engaging with education and the world in general with ADHD. You just need help getting organized, and usually that involves medication or something else. Once you have it, suddenly it’s like, I’m ready to run.
RH: Did you have any worries or concerns when you were thinking about going back to school? What was running through your mind?
N: I was really worried about not being able to focus and having ADHD. I saw Student Accessibility Services. They talked to me and they said, what help do you need with university, and what would make this easier for you? I was really worried about exams, so they said, if you have an attention deficit disorder, we can give you a distraction-reduced environment for exams. And those little things really helped.
I think having Student Accessibility Services was my saving grace in my first semester. They really took the pressure and anxiety off that I felt about not being able to focus and concentrate.
RH: How has your university experience generally been like during your undergrad? What’s it like going to school as a mature student?
N: One of the nice things about being a mature student at university is that you don’t come right out of high school and still see yourself as being in a subordinate relationship with your instructors. It was more collegiate for me, because some of them are my age, so it was easier to interact with professors and get to know them. And I think that was sort of instrumental in helping me find my feet at university.
And I loved it. The moment I came to university, it almost felt like I had found something that I should have been doing the whole time. It was like, oh my God, I’ve been having all these jobs I hated, working forty hours a week. I could have been here learning about stuff that’s actually really interesting with really good people.
To me, university is like a little world away from the rest of the world, but it teaches you all about the world. I think a lot of people fear going back into the real world after academia because it is a little bit of a microcosm, but you take a lot away from it at the same time.
RH: Have you found that there are any inconveniences to being a mature student?
N: No, but I know other people have. I have to manage different things, like when I need a babysitter. Like, I’ve had to bring my daughter to class before. But all of those things, I kind of enjoyed them a little bit.
I think it’s probably a little easier as a mature student to manage the school experience, ’cause you’ve had experience managing a full-time job and all the rest of it. Right out of high school is a hard time to be doing academia full-time. As a mature student, you have some extra skills on your side, which is an advantage.
I’m lucky that I have a group of people who can help me with my responsibilities, with my family. And it makes it a little easier for me, but not for everyone, that’s for sure. If you’ve got deep family commitments, it may not be so simple.
The only thing I would say is that there’s this misconception that it’s harder to learn as a mature student, and I would totally disagree with that, because for me it was kind of like I could carve out the time and space to do it. I’ve got nothing else I’m eager to do in life, but when you’re younger, you’ve got all this other stuff you want to get done, you want to get out into the world and do stuff. And I think that’s deeply distracting and makes education a lot more difficult.
RH: Have you been working full-time or part-time during your studies?
N: I’ve had a gamut of part-time jobs the whole time. I’ve consistently worked at the casino as a sound technician. I’ve also been a TA the whole time. I’m probably up to 30, 40 hours a week at this point as well as school.
RH: How have you found socializing in university? Have you been able to make friends with people younger than you or other mature students?
N: Obviously, COVID made things a little bit more difficult, but I found right away that it was easier to make connections because I was surrounded by more like-minded people than I would be elsewhere, especially with the courses I chose. I’m also deeply extroverted, so I will just seek out people to engage with if I want to.
RH: So, it doesn’t feel strange to you to be surrounded by so many people that are sometimes almost two decades younger than you?
N: No, not at all. I mean, I’m a parent, so I’m surrounded by a young child all the time. I don’t really perceive the age difference because I habitually talk to a much, much younger person. And to be honest, the first thing that struck me when I came to university was that it wasn’t just eighteen-year-old people. Maybe I notice it more than other people would, but if you look around in your class, it’s very unusual for it to only be people in their teens. I’ve had classes with people in their sixties. In fact, I think my first or second class, the lady who sat next to me was sixty-nine years old, and she was getting her second degree in women’s and gender studies, and I was her notetaker.
RH: What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from your undergrad?
N: I guess that education is extremely valuable. Like, knowledge is so incredibly important. A lot of people think that, oh, I can just read a book at home. But the university experience of really engaging with concepts… There’s a whole different level to it, when you’re critically studying these things, and the way that it opens your mind and understanding of the world. For me, it gives me a sort of sense of calm. When I started university, I felt that the world was this sort of chaotic and disorderly place, but I didn’t have any explanation for why. I was just sort of like, why does everything suck so much? And now at least I know why, and that sort of gives me a bit of peace.
RH: Have you experienced any barriers in education because you’re a mature student? If yes, what kind of resources or supports do you think should be more widely available to mature students to counteract these barriers?
N: When I decided I wanted to start university, there was no real, clear explanation of how you do that as a mature student. From what I understand, it’s a conversation you have while you’re in high school. Like, your teachers will talk to you about it, and maybe you’ll learn about it at open days. But there’s not a lot of resources for mature students, so I basically had to email email@example.com and be like, hey, what do I do? And I’ve helped a lot of mature students along the line, and they come to university and have the same problem. They’re like, what do I need? What do I do?
So, I think there’s a lack of information about how mature students can start their university career. I kind of had to figure it all out. I didn’t know how OSAP worked, I didn’t know how you get your transcripts, or anything like that.
And when you’re on the UWindsor website, and you’re looking at how to apply, it’s not aimed at mature students. So, I was asked to give a list of what I’ve done since high school. And I was like, you want twenty years of work? Those kinds of things are really hard to answer and fill in. It’s catered to an extent, as it probably should be, to people coming right out of high school. But it would be nice if there was a link for mature students so that you could follow those steps.
The big thing that stuns me is that—and I know it’s not the case for all programs—but not a lot of people know that you don’t have to have stellar grades out of school as a mature student. If you’ve been working in a job for however long and you decide you want to go to university, you absolutely can do that. There isn’t any sort of hangover from when you were in high school and you didn’t make a good decision about something that’s going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You can start from scratch.
RH: What about childcare, has that been an issue at all?
N: One of my biggest fears at first was about childcare. And I was really glad to see that the university has its own daycare for students, and there’s no cost to it.
But if you can’t use that place, the city will subsidize the cost of daycare for you usually anyway, because you’re a student, your income drops. You get a different consideration of income brackets, and the childcare will be covered for you. So, there are a lot of resources out there.
RH: Do you ever regret going back to school later in life, as opposed to in your late teens or early twenties like most people do?
N: I think about this a lot, and truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as I get from it now. I do think it would have been awesome if I’d have done all this when I was in my early twenties, but in reality, I wouldn’t have done the same thing. I wouldn’t have studied law, I probably would have done something in music technology, or something that later in life probably would have become less and less useful to me. But I feel like it’s sort of reinvigorated me now, to come to university as a mature student. I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of it back then as I do now.
RH: If you met the younger version of yourself, what do you think he would think or say about the current version of you?
N: I would have completely laughed. I would never have believed that I was capable of it. I guess I thought that I wasn’t able to formally interact with society. I had to do a non-conventional thing, you know?
Maybe it would have emboldened me. Maybe it would have given me the confidence, ’cause I didn’t really have any of that until I started doing music and someone said, hey, you’re really good at this. All I’ve been told was that I was disruptive and troublesome. So maybe it would have been really good for me. I wish more people told people they can do things and that they’re capable. You know, it does transform people for others to say: I think you’re capable of doing this thing.
Just like that example of someone who said to me, yeah, you could do that, why haven’t you? And I was like, what? It just never seemed like something that I was capable of doing, and that was the spark that set me off to do it.
RH: If someone is currently reading this and they want to go back to school, but they’re unsure of themselves or they’re scared or worried, what would you tell them?
N: As cheesy as it sounds, I would probably just say to follow your heart. The big worries you have as a mature student about going to university, financial and familial responsibilities, just know that people do this and you can do it. And people come from all backgrounds and walks of life as mature students and do really, really well at university and go on to have amazing, life-changing careers. It takes a little bit of figuring out, but there are a lot of resources and help out there to do it. And if that’s what your heart tells you you want to do, you should do it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.