'Mature students who sit at the front of the lecture hall get called Noddies - because we nod and agree with everything the lecturer says'


Q&A: DOROTHY NEALON, victim of the recession finds a new start in education. She talks to EOIN BUTLER

Tell us about your life before the downturn.I left school at 18 and went straight into work in retail. I worked in SuperValu and Superquinn before taking up a management role with Statoil. When Statoil left Ireland in 2006, I lost that job but was able to secure two further jobs in retail and publishing. Unfortunately, by then the recession had hit and I lost one job after the other on a last-in-first-out basis. Eventually, I had to sell my car, leave my apartment and move back to Carlow to live with my parents.

That can’t have been easy.It was incredibly difficult. I suppose, when you’re 18, the first thing you want to do is get a job, find your own place and become independent. Having then to turn around at 31 and say, “Mam and Dad, would it be okay if I moved back in with you for a while?” It felt like admitting defeat.

Have they told you to turn down that bloody music, or asked you where you think you’re going at this hour of the night yet?Absolutely! “Where are you going, who will you be with, what time will you be home at . . . As long as you’re under this roof, you’ll live by our rules.” But they’re great. When I enrolled in UCD this week, my mother said that she was very proud of me.

You’re studying Politics and Geography in UCD.Politics is something I’ve become very interested in, given the state the country is in. Geography, on the other hand, is something I’ve had a passion for since I was in school. I did sweat a bit over my CAO/CAS form because I’m still not sure what I’ll do when I’m finished. But I have four years to figure that out. I’m doing this to expand my knowledge of the world and to understand what’s going on around me a little better.

How do your finances work out?Everything has been cut. I’m on the Back to Education Allowance, which I get through Social Welfare. It’s the same as the dole – €96 a week, paid for the duration of the term – with a one-off bonus of €500 for buying books and stuff. So I have to get by on that. Basically, I try to go nowhere and do nothing. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. My mother works in Crumlin Monday to Thursday, so I bum a lift with her four days of the week and rely on public transport the rest of the time.

How are you adjusting to life as a mature student?It’s challenging because I really have to use my brain in a different way. In retail you’re dealing with people and problem-solving on a daily basis. Now I’m having to operate slightly differently. It’s daunting though because it’s all so new. I feel old. I shouldn’t at my age, but I do. All the school leavers have laptops, so all you hear during lectures is tap-tap-tap. All I have is a refill pad.

What are your impressions of your fellow students?Gosh, when I was that age I was as quiet as a mouse. I was such a goody two-shoes, it was disgusting. But there’s a great atmosphere. I think everyone’s excited about being in college. I’m excited because I’m going back to do something I never did. They’re coming straight from school, so they’re more excited about Fresher’s Week, the parties and embracing the student lifestyle – I’ve already seen some students asleep in the cafeteria.

As a mature student, of course, your job is to sit up front at every lecture and laugh at all of the lecturers’ jokes.Well, I’ve already heard that mature students who sit at the front of the lecture hall get called Noddies – because we nod and agree with everything the lecturer says. So I think I’ll probably sit in the middle to avoid detection, if I ever have to ask a question. No, no . . . mature students don’t ask questions. They deliver monologues with question marks at the end. Well, I hope I have the nerve to put my hand up and ask it, regardless of what the rest of the class thinks.

Looking back, do you have any regrets?No. When I was in my 20s I did slightly regret not going to college, because I was working while everyone else was having fun. But going back as a mature student, I’ve got a lot more life experience behind me. I’ve got a work ethic, I’m disciplined and, having been on the dole for so long now, I’m even more determined to grab hold of college life with both hands and enjoy it than I would have been. So I’m appreciating things much more than I would have when I was 17.