Bill Nipper was asked to leave UCLA as a student, had a stint in the military, raised a son and spent decades working various jobs before he really began to take his education seriously.
Nipper, 65, first attended UCLA in 1972, but after about a year was asked to leave because of low grades.
“I wasn’t ready for the workload of the type of classes I signed up for – business (and) law,” Nipper said, while pushing back wisps of gray hair. “I tanked all those classes … so I became a college dropout.”
This fall quarter – 40 years after his first experience at UCLA – Nipper returned to campus as a transfer student.
A yearly average of 557 students have been readmitted to UCLA as returning students since 1998, said Ricardo Vazquez, a UCLA spokesman. In the past decade, 131 students aged 50 or older have enrolled at the university as transfer students, he added.
“I was so surprised they took me back,” Nipper said. “I feel so fortunate. … They saw I had some potential.”
Many students now mistake him for a professor, he said, laughing.
Nipper is an anthropology student trying to take full advantage of the university’s resources after an almost half-century hiatus.
He was born in Oregon but grew up in Van Nuys, Calif. He briefly attended Los Angeles Valley College after high school, but was drafted to the U.S. Army in 1968 because he left school.
“Nothing will give you a sense of the value of education like being in the military,” Nipper said.
Luckily, he was never called to Vietnam and left the army in 1970 to continue his education, he said.
After returning to Los Angeles Valley College for a couple of years, he transferred to UCLA.
After leaving UCLA in 1973, Nipper worked by making miniature clapperboards – wooden devices used in film to mark takes and scenes – as souvenirs for the Hollywood industry, he said.
“Just like pictures of Marilyn (Monroe) or Elvis (Presley), clapperboards sold,” said Nipper, who made a living off of the souvenirs for almost 15 years.
For decades afterward, Nipper worked a variety of jobs, realizing that he needed to find a more solid source of income.
“After getting kicked out of school and thinking I’d get rich anyway … after 15 years nothing really happened,” Nipper said.
He worked as a projectionist in the entertainment industry, did field technician work and worked for eight years at Sony Corp. before his position was filled by someone else.
“The way the job market was … I thought I better get a degree,” Nipper said.
After attending a local community college for two years, he applied to only one school – UCLA – where he got in for fall of 2012.
John Vento, a UCLA alumnus and one of Nipper’s political science professors at Antelope Valley College, encouraged him to apply to the university.
“(Nipper) was a real pleasure to have in my class,” said Vento, who graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1993. “He seemed really proud of his opportunity to go back to school and being able to pursue (his education).”
Vento said Nipper was one of the students most comfortable with speaking about politics in class.
“Most students are 18 to 20 (years old) and haven’t been directly affected by the government yet,” Vento said. “(Nipper) was drafted. … Being able to share those stories in class would be how we could connect.”
Nipper would stay after class and talk with Vento about a particular election, local government issues or even UCLA football games.
“I always give (students) extra points if they can remember (UCLA football game) points and such – he really liked that,” Vento added with a laugh.
When he was accepted to UCLA, Nipper emailed Vento excitedly, Vento said.
“Because I wasn’t taking (UCLA) too seriously (the first time), I sort of had a negative feeling about it,” Nipper said. “Just the feeling of getting back here is so fulfilling for me.”
He started off his second time at UCLA with a negative grade point average, he said. But now, he has to complete only two more quarters to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
“I’m just so happy I can pass a college-level course,” Nipper said, with a laugh.
Nipper currently lives on a 20-acre home at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains with his 34-year-old son Will, and he commutes to campus twice a week for class. He said he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. on the days he commutes in order to get to campus by 6 a.m.
Before class, he swims at the North Pool on campus and goes for breakfast at Covel Commons Residential Restaurant.
He said he is trying to take advantage of everything the school has to offer this time around.
After graduation next year, Nipper is not sure what he wants to do. He said he may want to pursue something in anthropology or return to field technician work, this time with a degree.
“At 65, I’m not sure if I really want a job, but I really feel like I’m getting a bigger picture,” Nipper said. “Geez, after two more quarters, I’ll probably miss the place.”