Sherab Palmo was 54 by the time she finally enrolled to study midwifery, but she’s never been too far from the business of raising babies or helping deliver them into the world, “supporting friends in labour and birth, as a layperson”.
“Since my adolescence I always wanted to become a midwife, but around that time you had to first train as a nurse, which did not appeal to me,” she says. “When direct entry to midwifery began I was busy with my babies, and was later a single parent for nine years.”
During the 1980s, Sherab was also involved with the home birth movement, rallying “to gain autonomy for midwives”. “There was no social media then, everything took time and considerable planning to protest and petition the government,” she says. “I was fortunate to be supported in home birth antenatal classes when expecting my second child by Joan Donley, who spearheaded this movement in Aotearoa and pushed for midwives to be the independent practitioners they are today.”
The first time Sherab did eventually apply to study she had to delay again as she and her partner “became whangai parents to a new-born nephew”. Her rich life experience also includes living and studying in a Tibetan Buddhist temple, carpentry, circus performance and caring for the elderly.
“As a mature age student, you are bringing life experience and maturity with you that is so helpful when coping with the stress of a university degree,” she says. “You have more self-discipline and confidence.”
According to Educational Central, mature age students account for around half of the domestic student population, while at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the country’s largest foundation education provider, they make up a massive 83 percent. However, though between 1995-2005, the number of students aged 40 or over tripled, over the next eight years, the number of such enrolments dropped by five percent. Research by the New Zealand Union of Students’ Association and Grey Power found a 43 percent drop in students aged 55 and over after 2008.
Reasons for the fall in numbers include cost (even the government’s 2018 fees-free scheme hasn’t lured as many students as hoped), family commitments and a lack of self-belief.
“Juggling whanau is definitely the most challenging for the many mothers in our cohort,” says Sherab. “I waited a very long time before beginning to study knowing the commitment needed impacts on whanau. It is important to have good supports for childcare when on call, you need back-ups for your back-ups!”
Sherab says that at the beginning of her studies, she found it difficult to accept that she couldn’t “keep all my juggling-balls in the air”, and soon realised that she needed to learn to prioritise different things at different times. “Relationships need nurturing when under stress,” she says. “I make a point of regularly spending time with my partner, we go for a cross-country run and all-season swim at our beach every Sunday which also keeps me fit. Unless I am at a birth I spend each school morning with my seven-year-old. We eat our breakfast and he reads his school readers as we drive to the school bus. It is about the only time we are on our own together, so I try to make it quality.”
In order to accommodate such needs, many educational establishments offer the likes of weekend and/or online tutorials. Nearly half of Massey University students across its three campuses are ‘distance learners’, meaning lectures are video recorded to be sent to them the same day.
Alison Dow, director of Pou Aroha Student Support, says that such options not only gives mature-age students greater flexibility, but enables them to learn “new IT skills that will be useful to them in employment”.
“Learning to use technology has been quite a challenge for me,” admits Sherab. “It takes me much longer to type up assignments. I learnt the hard way to back up all written work and more than once have missed deadlines because I missed the ‘commit button’ below the ‘submit button’. Thankfully, many of my colleagues are savvy and are far more patient than my sons when helping me out!”
As Mark Oldershaw, DCE of the Eastern Institute of Technology notes, with an ageing population, “the traditional classroom environment may not be the best fit” something that “we all need to give some collective thought to”.
As for Sherab, as demanding as her degree can be, studying later in life is something that she would certainly recommend to others.
“Some hospital staff tell me my age is when midwives are thinking of getting out of the profession, not in,” she says. “They don’t feel as young at the end of their career as me at the start of mine. If you have the desire to retrain, or start a new pathway in life, then absolutely take hold of your dream.”