Don's diary: virtual new student world

October 18, 2002

Monday
From a quick scan of the other students, I pick up that black is still the new black and congratulate myself on getting something right at least. This is my first day as a full-time mature student on the diploma in legal studies at Strathclyde University. I have been agonising over what to wear to blend in with the younger students.

As I slip into the hall for our first lecture, I decide I have strayed into a bankers' convention by mistake. Can these pin-stripe-suited, hair-gelled men at the front (think Michael Portillo) really be our lecturers? Yes, they are working lawyers drafted in to teach us the skills we need for the big bad legal world. Another shock - classes are to start at 9am and finish at 6pm - so much for an easy student life.

Tuesday
The university is big on information and communications technology. We are all assigned "virtual law firms" on PCs where we can transact electronically with fellow students. I also get an email address, passwords for electronic legal databases and a multimedia CD with video clips. I am on leave of absence from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to do this course, and I recall its mantra about the sector needing to improve on ICT. Strathclyde passes with flying colours.

Ten minutes later, I still cannot prise the CD out of the case, so I give up. Soon I am ready with my "virtual law firm" members for our first task. Only problem is one does not turn up. The too real temptations of student life have not been factored into the virtual legal world.

Wednesday
The missing firm member shows up. She had been out on the tiles on Monday night and did not make it in. With my workaday hat on, I am a bit hacked off. Then it dawns on me that I, too, can do that. Just not turn up. Oh, happy days. I remember too soon that I cannot afford alcohol for the next eight months.

Today we have a roller-coaster of lectures, group role-playing and feedback on the topic of interviewing clients. The funding council seems a long way away. It is all very slick and extremely well organised: impressive.

I am brought down to earth when my personal tics and failings are ruthlessly pointed out in the presentation skills class. Hard to stomach for a communications manager.

Of the many tutor-lawyers zipping about, I can see not one woman. Not much of an example for aspiring female lawyers.

Thursday
Our morning lecture is delivered by webcast. I am impressed until the featured lecturer turns up in person to see how it went. I feel I am missing something, then figure I must be an unreconstructed dinosaur.

Today we are doing negotiating skills. I know this stuff. Several hours later, I have been stuffed by a 21-year-old who has run rings round me. I resolve to try again to get the CD out in case that will help, and wonder if there is a helpdesk of some kind. I am amazed at the poise and confidence of the younger diploma students. Was I like that at 21?

Friday
Combining work and study is a hot topic among my fellow students. Practically no one can afford the eight-month slog without some kind of job. The university has scheduled all lectures after the first two weeks for afternoons only - a helpful concession. It is a sobering thought that one student-cum-policeman is leaving home at 8am and returning at 1am five days a week, having fitted in uni and a shift. That is the reality of lifelong learning for many people.

Our group of "older" students is reduced to hysterics in the common room when one late-thirtysomething reveals that a younger diploma student had asked her if she had had the menopause yet. All illusions of feigning hipness are shattered. But we have another seven months and four weeks to rebuild our credibility.

Maureen Smith is head of communications at the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and a student on the diploma in legal studies at the University of Strathclyde.


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