Unlikely undergraduates: The lives of Berkeley’s re-entry students

Michael Drummond/File

It can be tough to rush a fraternity when you’re twice the age of the typical brother.

UC Berkeley undergraduate Van Green uncovered this truth when, at 46, he rushed Sigma Epsilon Omega. Looking to broaden his social horizons and jumpstart his first year at UC Berkeley, Green attended all of SEO’s rush events: He ate hors d’oeuvres and played games with the brothers in Willard Park. When the time came, however, Green didn’t apply for membership. Ultimately, he decided that the gulf between his own life experiences and those of the 20-year-olds he was surrounded by was too great.

Green’s predicament is one shared by many in UC Berkeley’s undergraduate community who are significantly older than the typical UC Berkeley freshman. How does a middle-aged man find common ground with the younger students? How can he find a place in a community that, by and large, doesn’t look like him?

Even for traditional undergraduates, walking through the flyer gauntlet otherwise known as Sproul Plaza can be both a blessing and a curse. Eager students with scraps of bright paper promoting UC Berkeley’s countless clubs and organizations make some feel included and excited but leave others irked, clenching another piece of recycling fodder.

But for students who aren’t of the typical undergraduate age, the march through Sproul can be profoundly alienating — an experience of social anxiety and self-consciousness rather than camaraderie. These individuals, known formally as “re-entry” students, often emerge near Sather Gate empty-handed, bypassed because they resemble professors or community members.

About 7 percent of undergraduates enrolled at UC Berkeley are age 25 and older, according to Ron Williams, the director of Stiles Hall’s Re-entry Student Program. This number — about 1,800 — has stayed fairly consistent since Williams joined UC Berkeley’s staff in 2000.

These students, who range from 25 to 75 years old, almost always come to UC Berkeley as junior transfers from community colleges. They return for a multitude of reasons, but most commonly for what one might expect: opportunity and advancement in the current job market, and a desire to participate in UC Berkeley’s legacy.

A population of nearly 2,000 seems healthy enough on paper, but these nontraditional undergraduates are spread across a broad range of majors, not concentrated in any one place. As a result, they can sometimes find themselves floating alone in a sea of people they no longer fully understand or feel connected to.

“The one thing that’s really annoying, which is not anything that anyone should or would do anything about, is (when instructors say), ‘So, remember from high school …’ ” said Rachel Pinkerton, 27. “I don’t!”

Pinkerton, who is quick to laugh and is hardly distinguishable from her younger classmates, is pursuing a cognitive science degree after almost 10 years working as an aesthetician. Like many students who leave professions to get a degree, she found it difficult to leave behind the respect she’d garnered and the community of clients and co-workers she’d established over the years. But Pinkerton is thrilled to be learning again. When she was the age of most of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate population, a college education seemed completely out of reach.

“I remember going into a parent-teacher conference (in high school) and being told I was failing all my classes — I had a 0.0 GPA,” Pinkerton said. “College wasn’t on my radar. College wasn’t on my counselor’s radar.”

“I remember going into a parent-teacher conference (in high school) and being told I was failing all my classes — I had a 0.0 GPA,” Pinkerton said. “College wasn’t on my radar. College wasn’t on my counselor’s radar.”

Pinkerton’s story is a common one for students starting their education later in life. Yet, despite previous setbacks, many who return find themselves more equipped to handle the challenges of higher education than they were at a younger age. Whereas students attending college right out of high school may feel unprepared because of financial stress, academic struggles or a lack of motivation and support, additional time and life experience aids nontraditional students in making the most of their UC Berkeley experience. Financial independence, enhanced social skills and an understanding of the privilege of learning can level the playing field and help them succeed equally to, if not more than, traditional undergraduates.

“When they have additional life experience, whether professionally or raising families, they have more clarity about the things that interest them,” Williams said. “Learning for them is not an abstraction — (it’s) connecting new information to their lived experiences.”

One place many older students assemble to share their stories is Education 198, “Adult Learners in Higher Education” — a class offered by the Centers for Education Equity and Excellence. The course offers a space to discuss study skills, learn about varied resources and talk about past experiences.

“First and foremost, (the class) is about building community,” said Clifton Damiens, a course instructor and a former re-entry student himself. “These people are covering a lot of different disciplines, and the only time they’ll really see each other is in this class.”

Despite the existence of the transfer community as an inclusive touchstone, a common complaint voiced in the safety of the classroom is that many re-entry students feel ostracized and cut off from the social opportunities UC Berkeley provides. For traditional undergraduates, leaving a few seats of room between themselves and a student who appears older may be a simple and unconscious decision. Any discomfort felt may stem from intimidation, confusion or an assumption that an older person’s story may be too different from their own.

Most of UC Berkeley’s population may not even notice the ways nontraditional students are attempting to bridge the gap. Though he didn’t feel comfortable joining the Greek community, Green is still finding a balance in UC Berkeley’s social scene. He has indomitable energy and wants to get a taste of everything UC Berkeley has to offer, whether it be KALX (UC Berkeley’s student-operated radio station), the Vietnamese Student Association or an LGBT organization.

After he graduated from high school, Green felt intense pressure not to go to college. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he felt discouraged from pursuing higher education. When he distanced himself from the church at 38, Green finally felt free to return to school and get started on making up for the time he felt he had lost. Now Green is cultivating his love affair with languages by majoring in linguistics and experiencing all that he can of college life.

But students who find a seat in Education 198 don’t always have the hours to pursue extra social engagements. They hold other competing identities — as workers, parents and veterans. These add-ons, evidence of storied pasts, present both significant challenges and opportunities for triumph.

Andrea Herradora, 26, holds a leadership position at the East Oakland trucking company she has worked at since she migrated to the United States from Mexico in 2007. She knows she can’t ignore the calls she receives in the middle of classes. If she does, she’ll get desperate texts — oftentimes, the situation at hand is urgent, a decision has to be made, and she’s the only one who can make it. When she steps back into the classroom, she has to race to catch up with what she’s missed. Regularly, the work problem is still at the forefront of her mind.

“When you have all these challenges, it’s harder,” she said. “But the fact that you’re a re-entry student and a transfer student, it just shows that you really want to do it.”

Pinkerton, Green, Herradora and the many others who join traditional undergraduates on the expansive Berkeley campus start and end their days much like anyone else. They won’t be at a fraternity’s party on your typical Friday night, but they might have the same question about an assignment. They worry about school, work and how to engage with peers. They bounce among commitments and obligations. They seek a balance. Like all undergraduates, they’re looking for their place.