It’s never too late – don’t underestimate the value of life experience

Completing a degree at any age is no easy feat, but as a mature age student it’s a whole different ball-game. I am currently completing my final year in the Bachelor of Occupational Therapy at UQ. My journey to this stage of my studies has been a long and challenging one, but very satisfying and rewarding nonetheless. I hope to encourage those of you who are considering study and may not have just come straight from high-school to jump in and give it a try. Just have a go - it may prove to be one of the most amazing journeys you will encounter. I know it has been for me.

Let me share with you a little bit of my background and how I came to decide to study occupational therapy. I always enjoyed my studies and did very well at school. It was always my intention to graduate and become an art and English teacher. I commenced my university studies straight from school, however, part-way through my first year I realised it wasn’t the career direction for me. I decided to defer while I worked out what might suit me better. During my break, I went out to work and married my high school sweetheart. In the back of my mind I was always tossing up whether to go back to university but I ended up foregoing further study and continuing with my full-time employment.  

Over the years, I worked in a number of administrative positions which saw me completing book-keeping tasks for large retail chains – things like budgets, wages and even being on the team that trained staff when new stores opened. After a while, I moved away from retail and commenced my journey along the health system pathway. I worked for GPs, specialists, allied health professionals and as a medical records clerk in a private hospital. While there, I undertook training to become a clinical coder and worked in this position for nearly 10 years. I found this work both extremely interesting and challenging. There are always so many advances in medicine and health which makes it a very interesting industry to be in.

My family grew while working over the years, I had two children and I was lucky enough to have flexible work hours which allowed me to spend as much time at home with them as possible. During this time my husband embarked on a new business venture which I decided to help with by providing administrative assistance. I completed my Cert III and IV in accounting, scaled back my hours working for others and eventually worked with him full time.

It was during this time that our daughter gained a hairdressing apprenticeship, her driver’s licence and moved out of home to commence living independently. She was very proud of herself, as were we. While in her second year, at the age of 21, she became very ill. For six months, we floundered not knowing what was wrong with her or who to turn to. We saw many specialists in a diverse range of fields. She had test after test which were all inconclusive. She lost her apprenticeship. She could no longer drive. She moved back home. It was a dark and difficult time for all of us. 

Then, we had the great fortune of meeting a rehabilitation doctor at our local public hospital. Although she could not provide a diagnosis, she arranged for my daughter to participate in their outpatients’ rehabilitation program. This was a turning point for her. We initially attended individual sessions three times a week with physiotherapists and occupational therapists. This was changed to a combination of group and individual sessions as she improved. After two years of working with the rehab team, she was discharged. My daughter was so determined. I didn’t realise how much fight she had in her! The rehab team motivated her to work hard and achieve outstanding results.

This is where my journey into occupational therapy began. I was in awe of the patience, compassion, empathy and knowledge this special group of clinicians possessed. So much of what they suggested seemed like it should have been common knowledge and we wondered, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’. By using their unique perspective as occupational therapists, they found ways to motivate my daughter. By using everyday activities that were meaningful to her as the basis for therapy exercises she was able to practice tasks and movements in motivating ways.  For instance, my daughter has always enjoyed cooking and baking. Have you ever stopped to think about how many actions are involved in baking a cake? You need to plan all your equipment and ingredients. You need to measure, mix, pour and clean up afterwards. You need to understand timing, be able to problem-solve if things don’t quite go as expected and you need to work safely. You need balance to move around or stand and you need endurance to complete the activity. All of these provide points at which occupational therapists can promote task-specific practice or coping strategies to enable someone to participate in meaningful activities.

I was so impressed, I thought to myself that if I ever had the opportunity, I would love to be able to help other people find ways to do what they need and want to do, to return to doing the things they enjoy doing in their lives. Now that my children have grown, here I am! I can’t tell you it has been easy because it has been anything but easy. As a mature age student, I have many responsibilities outside of university. I have been fortunate to have an extremely supportive husband and family to get me through. I can tell you this though – it is amazing and an absolute privilege to work with people to help them find ways to participate and engage in their lives. They do the hard work and practice but by seeking their input and collaborating to determine their interests, values, preferences and goals, I can provide the roadmap that directs their journey. 

My advice to any mature age person considering studying is to understand it is challenging, but with careful planning and consideration it can be achieved. In some ways it is easier because many of us ‘oldies’ know exactly what we want to achieve and can be more focused on our end goal. There are pathways to enter university which are worth discussing with recruitment officers to ensure you transition smoothly. Most importantly, I have found the life experiences I have gained have provided a wealth of knowledge, values and perspectives that you can only learn through experience. What have you got to lose? Have a try and enjoy the fulfillment that learning and knowledge can bring.

Incidentally, it was decided that my daughter had acquired a brain infection that severely damaged her vestibular system (balance centre). Although she will never fully recover, therapists have provided her with coping strategies so she can enjoy independence. She has recovered enough that she has returned to work and is a fully qualified and awarded hair stylist. She married a wonderful man and they have a three-year-old son. He is a real character and has all of us wrapped around his little finger.

Meet the author...

Tracy Bales is a mature aged student currently completing her final year of Bachelor of Occupational Therapy (Honours) Degree. She has been employed in a variety of administrative and support roles prior to commencing her university studies. Her family has always played the central part of her life and her decision to return to study was made once her two children were grown. 



Last updated:
21 October 2016