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Kerri McLean

If uni's teaching me anything, it's to not make assumptions about young people

Kerry McLean

I'm in the midst of doing a part-time degree at university. I say 'in the midst', but I think that may be stretching things, given that I'm only one-and-a-half terms into a six-year course. I can't think too deeply about those endless months of work ahead of me or I start to hyperventilate a little - a condition not helped by a conversation I had with some of my fellow students this week.

We were chatting before our lecture and standing around in the hall when one young soul asked how old I was. I answered, "I'm 44 and by the time I finish this I'll be 50", then watched as her eyes widened and her chin fell on the floor. Her response, I kid you not, was: "I knew you were old, but I thought you were, like, 30-odd."

How do you react when someone has simultaneously called you old but knocked 10 years off how old you look? I didn't know whether to hug her or walk away in disgust.

She followed up by asking why I don't just do my studies full-time, then I'd be finished in three instead of six years, but I explained that having three children and a mortgage hanging over my head made that an impossible dream.

"Can you not get a student loan to pay for it?," was her response. I couldn't help but be a little envious, thinking back to how great it was to be 18, when worrying about money is a small and easily solvable aspect of life.

If you're lucky enough to be in the position where the Bank of Mum and Dad is able to bankroll you or is, at least, a valid back-up option should things go southward, chances are you'll never lose sleep over how you'll manage to pay your bills and keep a roof over your head.

When I was in their shoes and studying straight after I'd finished at school, all my housemates and I held down part-time jobs so we would have a few extra pounds in our pockets. We worked as babysitters, we waitressed in cafes and bars and in the summer we did everything from wombling for the council (picking up litter from the streets and grass verges on the roads) to working in caravan parks as cleaners.

We didn't make a fortune, but it was enough to put towards shared bills and to make sure that we didn't have to skip a night out at a party, should one arise.

Talking to my youthful pals at university, I discovered that few of them had any outside work on the go and had no intention of getting any, certainly during term time.

I'll confess that it coloured my opinion of them a little because I'm in the position of knowing just how hard parents graft, trying to put away money to help their youngsters go on to study for a degree, if that's the path they want to take in later life.

My husband and I began squirrelling away for our three from the day their gorgeous little squished baby faces first appeared in the world.

I know what we've given up in terms of far-flung family holidays or even that spa-style dream bathroom I've always hankered after, just so we can watch the pounds multiply in their savings accounts.

So, to hear the unwillingness of these teenagers when talking about starting to pull their own weight was a bit galling.

That was until the same little soul who simultaneously insulted and complimented me said that being all too aware how much her parents were paying and how strapped for cash they were, she didn't want any distractions from her studies.

She treated her time at university as a full-time job. When she wasn't in a lecture or seminar, she was in the library or at home, reading and working. "I dream of getting a first-class degree to make my mummy and daddy proud," she said to more than a few earnest nods of agreement around the group.

It was a reminder for me that I should never make assumptions without delving a little deeper - and that's a great lesson for anyone of any age to take away from their education.

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