Dreams deferred

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Jessica Gleason/Staff

“You’re still in school?”

”Aren’t you supposed to have graduated by now?”

“How much more time do you have?”

These are some of the questions common to a modest and relatively small demographic of the undergraduate population. Being someone who entered UC Berkeley as a 22-year-old junior, these are questions that resonate with me. A little older, but not necessarily wiser, the turbulence of your mid and late 20s is magnified when you’re also an undergraduate student. One can’t help but feel a self-consciousness — it’s like wearing a shirt a little too snug for your comfort. Sure, we’re not that much older, but you can’t help but feel a touch out of place when you’re in the midst of your undergraduate career right at the same time others your age are about to leave it.

“I feel like sometimes it would be easier to come in as a freshman, ‘cause I think the whole process of getting assimilated into Berkeley culture can take a while. … Like now leaving the campus, I’m just starting to feel OK, and being used to campus and being able to get things done on Berkeley Time,” said Alex Danner, a 23-year-old senior studying English.

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Alex Danner

There are a number of reasons for our marginally late entrance. More often than not, it is because we found ourselves caught within a series of crossroads and unexpected detours; choosing between two careers or opting to pursue a completely new one might have taken a year or two. It can also be hard to traverse the constraints of circumstance; a strong work ethic and academic record alone can’t cover the cost of attending a university. Not everyone has a set four-year plan right after high school, and some are eager to pursue alternative routes, whether it entails a full-time job, military service or simply taking time to figure things out.

But the extra time doesn’t always translate to solid preparation. Given the smaller size and budget of a lot of community colleges, there are many resources that are not available — something that can have a lasting negative impact for those who transfer their junior year.

One can’t help but feel a self-consciousness — it’s like wearing a shirt a little too snug for your comfort.

A significant problem that hinders the transition from community college to a university is that community colleges often don’t adequately teach about career and internship aspects. Different priorities are emphasized in the two school systems: community colleges stress the proper fulfillment of coursework and general education requirements, but they fail to emphasize or even offer the advantages of solid internship experience and research experience that some majors expect at the upper-division level.

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Kelli Shiino

24-year-old UC Berkeley alumna Kelli Shiino reflects on her time as an older undergraduate. An international student from Japan, Shiino majored in development studies and graduated in summer 2015. Prior to her transferring to UC Berkeley, the benefits of research and internship experience weren’t presented as something as important as strong grades.

“I didn’t know how important it was to have internship experience when I was at community college. I’m taking one more year to get more experience (before) applying for graduate school. That’s how I’m covering experience that I wish I had. People here have a bigger network,“ Shiino said.

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Kyle Lin

 Kyle Lin, a 22-year-old senior psychology major, believes that community college does prepare you, but in limited capacities.

“I wasn’t thinking too much about internships and jobs when I was a junior, and I just got to (UC Berkeley) because I found the transition and environment overwhelming (when I was younger). We only have two years, so I feel like we lost those years compared to nontransfers. … You can kind of catch up, but not completely.“

Another obstacle for transfers in their early to mid 20s is the transition into the social environment. Shiino recounts her and her roommate’s difficulty with relating to lowerclassmen.

She explains: “We don’t know if we should join and make connections with other students or if we should just live on our own. I guess for older transfer students it’s difficult to get along with freshmen and sophomores. As a transfer student, you don’t know people for a few years. It was difficult for me to find close friends and people who have the same interests. It takes time to get to know people.”

“The transfer pool is a lot smaller, so I feel like if you’re a lot older it can be hard for you to make friends on campus and find your place. I can’t imagine an 18-year-old to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s hang out with this 23-year-old,’ ” Danner elaborates.

Lin agrees that it’s one aspect that community college can’t prepare you for.

“In terms of the social environment and in terms of friends, you have to get here in order to get a sense of what it’s like,” Lin says.

A member of the sorority Gamma Phi Beta, Danner found Greek life to be an especially crucial space for making lasting social connections that many transfer students struggle to make.

“I definitely think there could be better ways for older students to get together, and that’s something I’ve heard from my sisters. The reason they joined a sorority was because they couldn’t connect with other students — especially students who were juniors who were already there since they were freshmen, because they had already established their cliques and friend groups,” Danner said.

“There is this idea that you have to do everything in four years, like you’re employed by 22 or whatever, which seems less and less applicable. I don’t think the engineering students can finish in four years — so many people I know are double majoring or minoring and there’s no way they can finish in that time, they have to take obscene loads. I feel like the four-year thing in general is just not going to be true,” Hollister said.

For older transfers, another potential pitfall is the ease of falling into the trap of inadequacy. Entering the university environment when you’re a little past the typical age bracket makes you more susceptible to self-doubt. One of the most apparent challenges is overcoming a strong case of imposter syndrome. “Are we good enough to be here?” “Do we belong?” During our first semester, we occupied a peculiar position embodying both the qualities of a freshman and junior. We have also been made to believe the myth that we’ve gone off the tracks, and it can be tempting to see the late start as deviating from our set plan.

But Terence Hollister, a 26-year-old senior and physics major, believes that one of the issues is buying into the fallacy of a “dream deferred.”

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Terence Hollister

“There is this idea that you have to do everything in four years, like you’re employed by 22 or whatever, which seems less and less applicable. I don’t think the engineering students can finish in four years — so many people I know are double majoring or minoring and there’s no way they can finish in that time, they have to take obscene loads. I feel like the four-year thing in general is just not going to be true,” Hollister said.

Despite the academic and social pitfalls of being a twenty-something undergrad, it would be inaccurate to argue that the extra years are without progress. No matter how you spend the time, they are undeniably formative. Ultimately, we approach the continuation of higher education having gone through a rewarding process of gradual yet exponential growth.

To dispel a common misconception, the hiatus we’ve taken doesn’t translate to lost time — those years were far from wasted. For many, the extended period of time meant an essential and productive investment in self-development, whether it involved extended work experience or rearticulated career trajectories.

Hollister continues: “In the process of making a resume, they tell you shouldn’t have any gaps where you can’t account. There were a bunch of years where I was just taking classes but not towards a degree exactly. I don’t know if somebody’s going to look at my resume and understand that I wasn’t just like hanging out playing video games all the time. How is an employer going to look at my resume — ‘He’s 26, he’s just graduated from a university — what does that mean?’ It might look bad, but I kind of think I can just deal with that in a cover letter. I feel like I can sell that as a positive thing. But if I didn’t address it, I feel like it can go either way. Like everything in one’s history can be sold as a positive thing that makes you a better candidate if you know how.”

 

Contact Hazel Romano at [email protected]