One of the reasons I chose to come to UCLA was its diverse community, encompassing students from all nationalities, races, sexualities and ages. Some of my classmates were even born in a different generation. These nontraditional students piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more about their lives.
I reached out to nontraditional undergraduate students, who are relatively older than their peers, and asked them to share their unique stories, many of which turned out to be very inspirational. These students’ reasons for returning to university turned out to be much more complex than I had anticipated.
Bingyan Zhu, a 28-year old third-year mathematics student, never planned on coming to UCLA. This won’t be his first bachelor’s degree – he already has one in aquaculture from Tianjin Agricultural University in China. After getting his degree, he worked in a Japanese restaurant for five years until his parents prompted him to study abroad.
“My English sucked,” he said. “I wanted to major in biology because it was relevant, but the vocabulary was too difficult, so I chose math in the end … now my English has improved so much I find it hard to believe myself.”
Other students also went through a difficult process of introspection before deciding to come. 24-year-old Camille Evangelista, a third-year Italian and global studies student, originally wanted to attend UC Irvine – to the extent that it was the only university she applied to. Despite graduating from high school with a 3.5 GPA, she was rejected by the university.
“I found myself in a situation in which I didn’t have any backup plans,” she said. “All my friends were in university so I felt kind of lost.”
Evangelista went on to work in a mall, then became a receptionist and eventually transferred to work in human resources. She lived a hectic life, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and taking classes at a community college from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Her job allowed her to save enough money to travel, and so, feeling unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, she traveled around the world and finally discovered her true passions.
“I wanted to do something that involves another culture because it fascinated me,” Evangelista said. “Also, one of the classes I took was Italian … I fell in love with the language and the culture so I decided to take that as one of my majors, and I wanted to be a double major in global studies.”
Although Evangelista was unique among the students I talked to by finding her path traveling around the world, her experience of working and going to community college prior to attending UCLA resembled that of other nontraditional students.
Jessica Artinger, a 29-year-old second-year astrophysics and geophysics student, originally majored in music at a community college. Struggling with her general education classes, she was put on academic probation. She later enrolled in another community college, but dropped out and became a waitress when she realized the difficulty of getting a job with a degree in music. After struggling with the cost of living, legal issues and substance abuse, she re-evaluated her life, and finally ended up asking her original community college if they would take her back.
“I enrolled in (Orange County College) as an environmental studies major, but when I started doing research, I realized that the jobs the major could do were not anything I wanted to do,” Artinger said. “I ended up switching to astrophysics. So here I’m a double major in astrophysics and geophysics.”
Despite choosing a path less taken, these nontraditional students still feel they benefited from their experience, giving them a new perspective on college life.
“My experience is unique because it’s so different,” Evangelista said. “I went about it in a different way and am getting more out of it than other people. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but if it were four years ago, I would’ve been panicking and saying there’s nothing good that can come out of (my experience).”
The students mentioned that their attitude towards schoolwork differed from more traditional students.
“I don’t know if it’s that my major requires more studying or that I’m putting in the time but I do notice that they cram more than I do,” Artinger said. “I’m not saying that traditional students don’t take anything seriously, but just that when you’re a little older … feeling like a little bit behind makes you more headstrong if you want to get it done and do it right.”
Zhu agreed with Artinger on the point that they paid more attention to their studies than traditional students.
“I feel like most people around me aren’t spending most of their time studying,” Zhu said. “When I was working, I came to a realization that if you don’t have a degree, all you can do is manual labor. I feel like at least, you should work for a bachelor’s, just so your life wouldn’t be as hard later on. After all, I’m not a 17 or 18-year-old anymore.”
They also expressed mixed feelings about living with younger people.
“I’m in a dorm, which makes it a lot more different, being 29 and living with 20 year-olds,” said Artinger. “It’s difficult. Sometimes I kinda do feel like I’m their parent, though I try not to. Like should I try to remind them to take out the trash, or do you just let it pile up?”
Evangelista, however, has a different perspective on dorm life.
“I wanted to dorm,” she said. “During those four years, all I experienced was going to school at night and not being able to experience university life.”
They also offered some advice for others who might be considering attending college at an older age, or just students in general.
“You should enjoy college life,” Zhu said. “Once you start working, you get all kinds of pressure, and you lose that energy, that passion, and that dream you once had.”
Artinger noted that most people her age would transfer from a community college, so a good choice would be to save money and start a savings account. She encourages students to apply for scholarships because she received an almost full-ride scholarship when she came here.
“I never felt like I was too old, ” Evangelista said, “Especially going to a class and learning new things. … Even if you fall a little short there’s no timeline. It’s never too late to begin anything.”