At her back-to-school barbecue in September, Vicky Wright might have expected a food fight - but what she didn't expect was to have to fight for her food.
"I was surrounded by these, I was going to say 'obnoxious kids,' " said Ms. Wright, a student who had waited in line at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., for a hamburger. "They stepped on my toes and invited their friends in line before me. They were rude, loud, had a very odd sense of what personal space is," she said. "One of the kids ran over my foot with a skateboard - I was wearing sandals."
Ms. Wright, a digital-media student, was unlike most students there. At 44, she is back on campus after 23 years in the work force, looking to sharpen her computer skills as a graphic designer.
She is one of a growing number of "mature students" - mainly in their 40s or 50s - who are dropping their day jobs to score a seat in the classroom.
According to a report released last year by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the enrolment rate of mature students reached a record high in 2006. Of the 700,000 full-time undergrads in Canada, 16,000 were 35 or older. "We have lots of people who come back to school after 20 years," said Marilyn Laiken, a professor of adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. "Sometimes they graduate from one program and go back to work, or go start another program."
But once they get back on campus, older students often find that the kids are not all right.
The younger students, riled by the look, attitude and scholarly style of their more experienced peers, are swapping stories online. Dozens of groups taking aim at mature students, with members from Melbourne to Glasgow, Toronto to Halifax, are popping up on Facebook.
"Down with mature age students!" one group posting reads. "Go back to your life and stop trying to reinvent yourself."
"Old, boring and balding" is how they are described; they are mocked for hauling their textbooks in an airport rolling bag instead of backpacks. Some complainers say the older students mention their divorces too many times, and dress inappropriately for class: "Fifty years old and think wearing a suit to class is the done thing?"
"I have this guy in my class, he's 55," said Luke Gaston, a 20-year-old culinary arts student at George Brown College in Toronto. "He repeats things. If the chef says 'debone the chicken,' he says 'debone the chicken?' ...
"It's frustrating because we're there to learn but he's there for leisure," Mr. Gaston said. "He's constantly asking questions and slowing things down. He's hindering our education."
The age-driven tension often runs high, and sometimes it can boil over in the classroom. Kristen Monteith, a 24-year-old student at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., found herself sticking up for another young student when an older one got catty.
"I simply looked at the mature student and said, 'I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were in junior kindergarten, I thought this was college and we were supposed to be mature about these things,' " Ms. Monteith said. "She looked at me and continued on with her work."
For instructors caught in the middle of the melee, sometimes calling a time out is the only option.
"If worst comes to worst, I'll call a snack break and call the two students over to speak to me," says Heather Jordan, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto.
"I enjoy teaching mature students, but they're less co-operative. They have an 'us versus them' attitude," said Dr. Jordan, 37.
While they may be the victims of uncalled-for attacks, the oldsters are nonetheless fighting back against the whippersnappers with their own Facebook groups. On their pages, they scold younger students for showing up late to class with hangovers and for distracting others by whispering loudly during lectures.
"You can only laugh at the Hate Mature Age Students groups because it's clearly spoilt brats that live with mummy and daddy and have no real world experience," one mature student writes.
"It's humiliating getting bullied and abused by people almost 10 years younger than you," another writes, "and then having the staff tell you that you brought it on yourself for coming to university."
Still, some school instructors do hear out the older folks.
"Some younger students go to school prematurely, and they can be a drag to have in the class if they don't want to be there," said Nicole Collins, a 46-year-old painting professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design who is a master's student in visual arts at the University of Toronto. "I've never had a mature student who doesn't want to be there. They've had to make sacrifices."
The campus divide continues outside the classroom, where mature students feel excluded from the keg parties and pub crawls.
"I found it was a bit bizarre and overwhelming, and in some cases very much like a carry-over of high school," said Shawn Rennebohm, a 37-year-old political science student at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, B.C. "We want to be involved but don't want to get smashed."
In turn, the older students are carving out social groups and clubs on campus, holding events from Scrabble nights to potlucks. And as Marie Colombe de Maupeou, co-ordinator of the mature students centre at the University of Ottawa, says, they do it to meet like-minded folks and forge a community outside the cliquey confines of youthful campus life.
"They're not particularly interested in knowing 'this guy was so cute,' " she said.
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