Returning to study as a mature age student is more likely done by women, but it’s often a juggling act

Returning to study as a mature age student is more likely done by women, but it’s often a juggling act
  • PublishedApril 14, 2024

Stephanie Grieve has always wanted to work with animals in some capacity, but with four children and 16 pets, spare time is not something the 37-year-old has in abundance.

That changed earlier this year though when her youngest child started kindergarten and her husband encouraged her to chase her dream.

“I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I remember saying ‘I want to be a vet’,” Mrs Grieve said.

“It’s always been sitting in the background. But when did I have time?

“It was [husband] Aaron who said to me ‘come on, you’re going to do your vet nursing’. He’s my rock.”

A woman in a black shirt holds a snake.
Mrs Grieves volunteered with the local wildlife rehabilitation group and rediscovered her love of animals.(ABC Broken Hill: Coquohalla Connor)

It is a common story for a lot of women who start or return to higher education, according to research from the University of Melbourne.

After having children and reassessing their lives, women often return to formal study to try and gain access to new employment opportunities.

But for many, Mrs Grieve included, it is often a juggling act.

Routine is key to study

On most days the mother-of-four, who range in age from five to 15, is up before the sun.

During the school week, with her train-driving husband already at work before his kids are out of bed, mornings are a mad rush for Mrs Grieve.

After getting everyone in the large Grieve household fed — the 16 animals included — the children are herded out the door and into the car with their packed lunches before the 37-year-old returns home to tidy up after the breakfast chaos.

After taking five minutes to catch her breath she settles down for a full day of study.

A man, woman and girl stand together holding snakes.
Mrs Grieve has always been interested in animals, with both her and her husband Aaron with qualifications to look after exotic pets like pythons.(ABC Broken Hill: Coquohalla Connor)

Thanks to her certificate in veterinary nursing being available via distance education Mrs Grieve is able to undertake it without any kind of commute.

Sometimes work takes place at her desk, sometimes on the couch, while the cats, birds, and various other pets hang about.

As she explains, it does not matter where in her house she studies, the key thing is sticking to a routine between dropping the kids off and picking them up again later that day.

“I have ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder] so learning has already been a hard thing for me. But I’ve gotten the help I need to concentrate and study,” Mrs Grieve says.

“I’m really lucky with that side of things.”

A young girl in a yellow shirt holds a snake.
Tilly started school this year, which gave Mrs Grieve time to consider what she wants to do with her time.(ABC Broken Hill: Coquohalla Connor)

On weekends, with all the children home, that study routine is even more important — although keeping them and all the animals occupied is made easier by her husband.

As he works away building a new enclosure for the family’s six pet pythons, the children are kept occupied with homework and video games so their mother can focus. 

Keeping the animals silent can prove a bit harder, with Sassy the moustached parakeet in particular wanting to frequently show off her impressive mimicking skills.

The three cats are more content to snooze quietly though.

Once parenting’s done it’s time for life goals

Mrs Grieve had always been an animal lover, but after volunteering as a wildlife rescuer and carer for Broken Hill’s Rescue and Rehabilitation of Australian Native Animals (RRANA), she wanted to pursue it as a career.

It will be four years before she is fully accredited to work as a veterinary nurse, which involves completing certificate three and four, but with so much support from her family she said she feels she is on the right track to conquering her dreams.

A woman sits on the couch and studies.
Organising time to study has been difficult for Mrs Grieve, but she says routine is a lifesaver. (ABC Broken Hill: Coquohalla Connor)

It is something associate professor Jenny Chesters knows can be done despite the challenges of raising a family at the same time.

In addition to being the lead researcher into the motivations and barriers faced by mature age students returning to formal study, the senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne was 43 with three daughters when she enrolled as an undergraduate herself.

“My youngest daughter finished high school, I already had two daughters in university, so I thought ‘why not?'” Dr Chesters said.

Prior to this big life decision she had been a casual cleaner at the local hospital.

After completing her undergraduate degree she did not want to stop there and applied for honours at the University of Queensland.

“When I did my honours year I went to the same university as my daughters. [They] wouldn’t acknowledge me on campus!” she said.

A woman stands in university regalia
Dr Jenny Chesters graduated with her PhD at the University of Queensland in 2009.(Supplied)

Now with a doctorate under her belt, Dr Chesters’ research interests include inequality in educational attainment and transitions between education and employment throughout the course of life.

Her work suggests women are more likely to return to education later in life, and for different reasons to their male counterparts.

“We find it’s after they’ve had children and now they’re thinking they want to go back to work. But [also asking themselves] ‘do I want to go back to that profession?’,” Dr Chesters said.

Back in Broken Hill, Mrs Grieve agreed with that assessment.

“Once you’ve done your part as a parent it’s now time for you to reach for your goals,” she said.

Her advice to anyone who is thinking of reaching for their career goals is simple — talk to those in the know and get moving.

“The more you talk to people in that field the more they’ll be able to tell you what direction you’ll be able to go,” Mrs Grieve said.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *