Starting University at 26 in the UK, Oliver’s successful story

Another inspiring mature student story we have on the blog. This time we will have a look at Oliver’s story: “starting university at 26”.

Oliver decided to start university to leave the hospitality industry and change career. He could not see a future there, and felt undervalued, unappreciated and underpaid.

We are sharing these stories with the aim of inspiring those who feel “lost” in their life and cannot see a way out, it’s never too late!

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Starting university at 26, Oliver’s story

Hi everyone, my name is Oliver and in this post I’m going to share my mature student story. As you will know already from the title, I decided to start university at 26.

Growing up I wasn’t really interested in studying. I just wanted to finish secondary school and be done with education forever.

I could not be bothered to go to university and spend more years studying and living a financially broke life.

At that time, it all sounded like a scam to me. I felt like I was smarter than others because I wasn’t going to university, only to find out few years later that it was the other way.

Anyway, my plan was to work any job and be independent. So I guess that “any job” is what got me into an unpleasant situation..

My working life

All I wanted was an average life, nothing too crazy. Basically, living on my own, travelling, getting a car, partying with my friends and so on.

So I started to work where I could, and I inevitably fell into the hospitality and customer service vortex. I have worked everywhere, hotels, restaurants, cafes, pubs, conference centres, call centres, shops, you name it.

The more years I spent changing from place to place looking for the “perfect work environment”, the more I started to regret not going to University.

I was stressed and unhappy, I felt undervalued and I knew I was worth more than that. Don’t get me wrong, there also some pros in living that life, but they are simply not enough for an entire life.

“I don’t like my jobs, but I’m ok with it”:

I was independent, and despite a salary always near or slightly above minimum wage, I was financially “stable”.

Throughout those years I made really good friends at work and we had lots of fun! We travelled together, partied together, sometimes shared the same flat.

I really think that this environment created the bubble in which I was living in. I could not see out of that box, and I was valuing too much the pros of living like that.

Even worse, I didn’t like my job, as a matter of fact I didn’t like any job I tried (hated hospitality). The problem was that I had started to get used to it!!

The reality

Was I really financially stable? I had enough money to pay rent/bills, for some pints with my pals, and for some budget travelling time to time. But what about savings?

The future did not look promising at all and I could not certainly be living that life forever. Relying on customers’ tips and doing extra hours to earn more.

On top of that, complaining everyday with my colleagues about long working hours, early shifts, finishing late and so on.

Moreover, having to deal with stressed managers and weird customers on a daily basis. Why did I need to take on board their problems?

It took me few years to realise that the cons offset the pros by miles! I was probably blinded by friendships and got used to that life.

I was so busy that I could not think about anything else in my spare time other that relaxing when possible (and complaining).

Building up ambitions

At some point I tried to progress in the hospitality industry itself. I wanted to become a manager, earn more money and have more satisfying career.

I fancied the idea of wearing a nice suit, having responsibilities and managing others, I really wanted to progress! It is at that point that I started to build up ambitions.

However, I soon had to face reality as well. Progressing in such industry is hard and takes ages. By progressing I don’t certainly mean becoming a supervisor, team leader or anything like it.

Anyone can do that quite easily (with effort and dedication) and in a relatively “short” time. By looking at their lifestyle, stress and salary, in my opinion it wasn’t worth it.

I wanted to become general manager of an international hotel or fine dining restaurant. Dealing with huge brands, hospitality chains and such, earning high salaries with bonuses, international travels and so on.

Why I wanted to go to University at 26

The reality was quite simple, no qualifications meant fewer (close to 0) possibilities to get where I wanted to, right at the top.

What did the general manager of the hotel I was working in have? A university degree.

I remember when working there, so many times I had to serve younger people (guests) than me. They all had various fancy jobs and their companies were covering all expenses.

What did all of them have in common? A university degree.

Same for when I was working in a fine dining restaurant. Every Friday night I would see tons of younger people having fun together with food and drinks paid by their companies.

Again, what did they have in common? They were graduates.

Even when working in a conference centre, serving young people with brilliant careers attending super fancy events sponsored by their employers.

I never really had anything like it in hospitality! So I wanted to be on the other side too, feeling appreciated and valued, be the one attending rather than the one serving.

Making the step and starting university as a mature student

It became an obsession, I wanted to change my life! I wanted a career change that would ensure high earnings and satisfaction. In my mind there was only a university degree.

I was 25 when I started to gather information on the matter. Few months later I was attending an access to higher education course in order to meet the entry requirements.

I was focusing on my future and I had a clear objective, I was studying hard and nobody could stop me. Then I had to decide which degree to apply for and write a personal statement for my application.

Hard choice, but the business world always attracted me. Becoming a top manager, negotiating important commercial terms, closing deals, I wanted a career along those lines.

I did not want to restrict myself to the hospitality industry, although everyone suggested me to apply for Hospitality & Events Management.

Instead, I went for International Business & Finance. In my personal statement I threw everything I felt, my work and life experience, my feelings and, mostly, my ambitions.

Very surprisingly, I received an offer from all Universities I applied for, it was time to pick one and start!

Starting University at 26

Before starting University and officially becoming a mature student, I had to face a big barrier made of questions and doubts.

Is it too late? Am I too old? Will I be successful and find a job after?

These were ruining my sleep, but not only. I wasn’t sure if I would fit into the university environment as an older guy.

I was stubborn, I sorted my student finance but I did not want to take any maintenance loan (this was a mistake and I actually regret it!).

The idea of having a huge debt did not sound that good to me, even though I would only need to repay it if earning above a certain threshold.

But that wasn’t the point, I took it as a challenge with myself, didn’t want any help. “Mother hospitality” was a good teacher for managing my time and money.

Working and studying at the same time

I kept working part-time and increasing/decreasing my working hours according to my study schedule; although I would work full-time during summer as well as Christmas break, Easter break and so on.

I will always be thankful to hospitality for that, it gave me that flexibility I needed to support myself financially.

Moreover, the full-time student status gave me access to numerous discounts, from council tax exemption to transportation, from groceries to personal shopping.

I was pretty much in the same financial situation as I was when working full time, I did not feel poorer at all!

My time as a mature student at University

I spent 4 years at University, the exact expected time to complete my Degree with honours.

I have experienced lots of things, met many extraordinary people, but most important I changed my life. At the beginning I was scared, 4 years sounded like a long time to me, but it really “flew” fast.

I’m not going to lie and pretend everything was perfect, I had a lot of ups and downs. During the first two years I was trying to answer those questions I had. Remember the ones mentioned earlier?

They were all inexistent! Luckily those two years did not matter that much, I used them to settle in.

My real University experience started in year 3, although I wish I did not waste the first two. What do I mean by waste? I did not “live” University at all.

I used to isolate from others, not getting involved in extracurricular activities, going back to my flat as soon as lectures were finished and so on.

Putting it simple, I did not feel “appropriate” for the environment, not a good fit.

It was in year 3 that I realised and accepted that I was indeed “different”. I believe mature students face a slightly different experience than the rest, but it’s just a matter of perception.

If you manage to change that perception, you will change the whole experience!

Academic Performances as a mature student

This is what really matters for many students, although I don’t particularly agree with that. At the end of the journey, I managed to graduate at 30 years old with a First-class Honours Degree.

It wasn’t easy, I was on track for a 2:1 but thanks to my dissertation and last exams I turned it into a first!

I believe mature students have an advantage in that. I did not feel the same pressure and stress that younger students were experiencing during exam periods.

Why? I’m not sure, but my idea is that my previous life of working full-time, dealing with managers, customers and so on was behind that.

I was used to managing pressure, plus the idea of going back to that life was pushing me forward.

In year 3 I started to make really good friends to share notes and study together. I began to “follow” those who seemed to be destined to success.

I was getting involved in extracurricular activities, expanding my network and establishing relationships also outside of University.

My last year was the hardest, not only because I was writing my dissertation, but also because Covid had a huge impact.

It doesn’t matter know, university challenges are good because they prepare you for what comes after.

My life after graduating from University as a mature student

This is what really matters! I had a clear goal when starting University at 26: to change my life and fulfil my ambitions.

I graduated in the middle of a pandemic and had a “virtual ceremony”, not exactly what I wanted. My academic journey was over, and I could not even celebrate with my loved ones!

If that wasn’t enough, the job market looked tragic, things were not promising at all! The world economy was going towards a deep recession right when I was supposed to start reaping the rewards!

I thought I would find a job easily with my CV: a First-class Honours Degree; years of Hospitality and customer service experience. On top of that, two professional internships as well.

I made hundreds of applications for graduate schemes and jobs. If you are not familiar with those, they are quite tough and time consuming.

They involve several stages, from numerical and verbal tests to video-recorded Q&A and actual interviews. I literally hated that process, very frustrating!

Was starting University at 26 a mistake?

I was quite depressed. I began to think that starting University at that time had been a huge mistake. Companies were not replying, and when they were my application was “unsuccessful”.

Most graduate programmes were stopped or delayed to the next year intake due to Covid.

In some cases, I would get to the final stage (let me tell you that it is hard to get trough those tests!) and deliver amazing presentations and individual interviews with hiring managers.

Nothing, all unsuccessful. I even started to think that my age of 30 was the problem.

In fact, throughout the stages I was not required to reveal my age, but obviously when reaching the final interview they would see a graduate “adult”.

I thought I would need to go back to hospitality, but the industry was living un unprecedented crisis and nobody was hiring even there. That would have been a defeat for me, I was hurt.

Not giving up on my ambitions!

I didn’t want to fail, I had a clear objective when starting University as a mature student and I kept reminding me that.

If there were some graduate jobs available, then somebody was getting hired. Why not me?

Those starting salaries were well above what I used to get in hospitality. Moreover, with less working hours as well as a fixed work schedule that would allow me to plan my hobbies and activities (finally).

I wanted that at all costs!

So I did not give up and I started to practise verbal and numerical reasoning tests as much as I could.

I bought several books with psychometric exercises containing answers with explanations (really important!) and completed them several times until I fully understood the mechanism.

Meanwhile I kept expanding my network, particularly on LinkedIn as well as attending virtual events and career fairs.

I kept applying for graduate jobs until..

I got an opportunity! After going through all the stages of an application for a two-year graduate programme, I received an offer for a top financial company!

I will never forget that day, I was speechless. There were only 15 positions open for graduates all over the UK, and almost two thousands graduate applicants.

Let me repeat that, 2000 applicants for 15 roles! I made it, I was one of those fifteen. Obviously I accepted the offer straight away.

My new life, starting university at 26 was a success!

At the time of writing this post, my graduate scheme is almost finished. I have been mainly working from home, but I visited the office quite a few times, another world!

The opportunities are endless and international, and guess what? I have already been offered a permanent position after finishing the programme.

I cannot wait to experience the business world, my new life starts now.

In terms of salary, thanks to a much higher hourly wage rate and company’s bonuses, I’m already earning almost double the money I was getting in hospitality.

All of that working 8 hours a day Monday to Friday with no overtime, no begging for customers tips.

If there is something I’m missing from hospitality though, that is certainly the relationships with colleagues.

I miss those days a bit, with everyone being on the same sinking boat, complaining everyday but still working hard, helping each other all the time and so on.

In any case, returning to education as a mature student has been a success, definitely worth it!

My advice if you are feeling like a felt

I like using bullet points, I think they give a clearer message:

  • Do not let anyone make you feel worthless, no matter if work or family.
  • Be ambitious, being undervalued and unappreciated can ruin your mental health.
  • Always follow your interest, and trust your feelings more than other people.
  • Don’t waste time, that’s the most precious thing you have.

I hope my story can inspire you somehow!

More Mature student stories

Are you looking for more mature student stories? Here you can find more:

However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at” – Stephen Hawking