You can teach an old dog new tricks!

This is Matt’s article that appeared in Viet Week and Thanh Nien News on the 6/4/2012. 

By Matthew Cowan

Late last year on a return flight home with the LSU crew from an academic language and learning conference in Adelaide, I somehow, and regrettably, sat through a Tom Hanks directed, produced, written and starred romantic comedy (with Julia Roberts…aaargh!) called Larry Crowne. What was I thinking?! That’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back! So what’s my problem? Well, for one, I can’t think of anything much good that Tom Hanks has done since Bachelor Party (remember the donkey scene?!) and two, it goes to show how desperate I was on that long flight back from Australia with nothing to do. Seriously though, you may question what this has to do with learning? Well, in the movie, Hanks plays Larry Crowne – a portly fifty-something ex-Navy man who’s divorced and works as a supervisor at a Walmart department store. And just when you think that he has nothing much going for him, he unexpectedly gets retrenched during a restructuring of the company, despite his loyalty and years of exemplary service. As a result, Larry can now add unemployed to his already unimpressive resume all because he doesn’t have a college education. And, while this movie develops into just another romantic Hollywood sick-fest, the terrifyingly dead-end that Larry finds himself in is reality for many people in our world.

As Larry takes up residence, or rather squats, on his front lawn courtesy of being evicted from his house by the bank, he takes the advice of his neighbour, Lamar, and enrols in the local community college to get an education in the hope of better job opportunities in the future. Now, as lame as this movie is, it touches on a couple of anxieties that mature age students confront when they decide to go back to study. One of these anxieties is how to make friends. In the movie, Larry forms an immediate friendship with a young free spirit called Talia who just happens to ride a Vespa and is mega cute. How does a loser like Larry attract this attention?! Well, shallow script aside, he confronts some of the fears that many of us have and actively seeks to connect with people who are much different from him. He makes an effort to understand his classmates and makes time to ‘hang out’ with them both on and off campus despite their age difference. It enables him to create a safety net of support for himself so that when stress, anxiety and embarrassment come knocking, as they invariably do when we return to study, he has somewhere to turn for support. When I went to university for the first time as a 25 year old, I found it extremely hard to relate to my classmates because most of them had only just left high school a few months earlier while I hadn’t long returned from living and teaching in Japan for two years. But I persisted, and surprisingly so did they, and I discovered that such was the diversity of personalities within my year that I easily found a lot of commonalities between us despite our age difference and backgrounds, and to this day I’m still in contact with many of them.

Larry also grapples with the vagaries of learning how to learn again. With no higher education experience, not just mature age learners like Larry, but all learners in general, have difficulty coming to terms with the greater expectations that university lecturers tend to have. One of the major causes of study anxiety that we see in the LSU is brought on by essay writing. Our experience tells us that it doesn’t matter what background or language group you come from, first year students generally get it wrong. But with support, practice and constructive feedback from peers, lecturers and places like our LSU, even the weakest writers develop into proficient essayists and go on to graduate. I can remember the first essay I ever wrote at university got me 9/20 with some very discouraging remarks attached from my lecturer. I got over it, sought support and over time I got familiar with the formula for successful essay writing and churned out a lot of great stuff.

For anyone contemplating going back to study, it’s often far too easy for them to think about why they shouldn’t and why they would fail. Contrary to what some might believe, mature age students are a valuable resource in any learning environment and they bring to the classroom attributes that recent high school graduates can’t possibly bring, like life experience, work experience, various qualifications and a fresh perspective. The ‘older’ students we tend see in the MBA programs here at RMIT for example, while time poor, tend to be highly motivated, organised and simply driven to succeed – they add so much value to the learning and teaching experience. Currently, Vietnamese culture is readjusting itself to the idea of lifelong learning and hopefully in the near future we’ll see a greater number of mature age university students dropping into the LSU for advice. For the time being however, if you’re playing with the idea of a return to study and aren’t quite sure if you’ve got what it takes, think seriously about it because you might just be pleasantly surprised at how ready you are. Oh, and by the way, Larry gets the girl and graduates from college and I suppose then gets a job and lives happily ever after.


Things you can do to get the most out of your university experience as a mature age student:

  • Connect – make an honest effort to form and maintain relationships with those from different age groups, backgrounds, etc. – they’ll become your safety net because they’ll understand exactly what you’re going through.
  • Think about what you do bring to the classroom, not what you don’t in terms of knowledge, experience and skills and gain confidence from that.
  • Find out where Student Services is and what services are offered at your university to support you mentally and physically during your studies – you’re paying for them, so use them!
  • Demand feedback, both positive and negative, and use it wisely to improve, develop and grow.
  • Know why you’re enrolling at university and do a thorough background check on the degree program you’re interested in to be sure that it meets your expectations and doesn’t become a waste of your valuable time, energy, and importantly, money.
  • Be open to new ideas, people and experiences!



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