Not exactly Gen Z: Here’s one for all the older Bears at Berkeley

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Emily Bi/Staff

Whether you’re a transfer or re-entry student, or even an alum, it can sometimes feel a little alienating to wander around campus among the throng of 18- to 21-year-olds scampering about. In fact, they seem to be getting younger every year (and shorter, for that matter) — oh wait, no, those are just middle schoolers touring our school again.

The truth is, it does make us cringe when we hear someone complain about how old they’re going to be when they turn 20 or even 22 next year, or even how old their 30-something GSI is.

For those like me who are blessed with the baby-faced gene, all this does is make me want to keep my mouth shut and avoid discovery until I’m outed as the much-earlier-90s baby than anyone else in the room.

“No, no, she’s our age,” one student reassured me when I asked about a mutual friend, inquiring if she was a re-entry student. “20.”

Ah, yes. Our age. Both of us. Together. 20. Of course.

It reminds me of the time someone said we were all Gen Zers in the room, and I almost choked on my spit.

It does make certain things awkward, and I’m not just talking about getting hit on by 19-year-olds while crushing on your more-appropriately-aged grad student instructors.

No, there’s definitely a stigma that comes with being an older student. Whether intentional or not, for most people they’ve only ever taken classes with people their age their whole life; they feel a bond or kinship with people from the same exact age group and that’s just the way they’ve been raised.

Personally, I was home-schooled, so I had friends from all sorts of age groups. Then I went to community college, and there’s no wider age gap between friends you’ll meet than at a community college.

There are all sorts of reasons why someone may be an older student at UC Berkeley, or, anywhere really.

Personally, I wasn’t raised with university as the end goal. When I got to the age where most people are taking their SATs, I never did. While most people had sent in their college apps, I was lucky enough to have someone help me sign up at Golden West College, a community college back home in Huntington Beach, where I took photography and creative writing before fumbling through the more heavily academic classes and even the classes I enjoyed before eventually dropping out.

I didn’t think that college was for me. I failed the same math class three times, and it wasn’t exactly statistics.

I took a break. I worked at a daycare and attended a ministry school, and realized just how hard life could be if you could only ever make minimum wage. I’d always been afraid of asking for help, too ashamed before, but now I knew I had no choice.

When I got back to school, I entered Golden West College as a 23-year-old. I signed up for a critical thinking literature course that would take place over four weeks in a brutal segment known as winter intercession.

My professor in that class encouraged me in a way I hadn’t been encouraged academically in so long, and for the first time I felt motivated and believed in.

I’d finally found myself in a place where I was ready to fight for myself and my education. Next I took a British literature course with a notoriously difficult English professor, and this time, when things got difficult I rose to the challenge.

I was nearing 25 when I finished everything — including college-level math (thanks to tutoring) and many more English literature courses. When I went to prepare to send in college apps, I’d only intended on applying to a local school.

That same first English professor pulled me aside and told me that he thought I could do better.

I applied to Berkeley with no belief I would actually get in.

But this is not just my story — this is the story I’ve heard from so many other transfer and re-entry students, and even spring admits, time and time again. Regardless as to what their history was, whether they were 21 or 51, you have already checked yourself off the list.

“I’m too old. I already have failed. I’m not meant for school, or university isn’t for me. I took too long, I don’t deserve this, I need to just hurry up and finish already.”

That’s what we’ve told ourselves — no matter how ridiculous it may seem.

Seeing the confetti going down your screen when you open the page that says you were accepted to UC Berkeley is a feeling like nothing else, to know that even when you didn’t believe in yourself, UC Berkeley did.

Of course, that feeling doesn’t always stay.

Someone makes some coarse remark, whether it’s about you or someone you know, and it’s flippant and probably not meant to hurt, but it does.

When you’re the same age or older than your GSI, or when you download a dating app only to see that everyone your age is a doctoral candidate and you’re finishing your undergrad … there’s definitely a feeling of shame that can sink in.

But there’s also so much we can learn from our younger friends, as well as so many “traditional” students who want to be our friends and won’t judge us.

When this post goes out Friday, it’ll be the day before my birthday. I’m turning 27 on July 7, and you know what? I’m not ashamed about it anymore. I’m going to finish school in December, and that’s fantastic.

We can’t compare ourselves to other people — that’s not fair to ourselves and that’s not fair to them. We’ve done a lot of growing and maturing in ways that they haven’t yet.

We can only compare ourselves to our old selves.

And you know what? That new me? She’s in a lot better place than the old me used to be.

I guess you can teach an old Bear new tricks.

Lauren West is the assistant blog editor. Contact Lauren West at [email protected].

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  • Suchitra Abel

    I agree; you can teach an old Bear new tricks. I am a Ph.D. from 1970’s, the one who was actually tear-gassed during Vietnam War, in the UC Berkeley campus. I am still doing high-level research, presenting and publishing. Never give up!