When I started at Cal Poly Pomona in 2022, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, I was enthusiastic. The beauty of the campus, getting to meet new people and achieving a lifelong dream of obtaining a college degree gave me a joyful outlook in life.
Unaware, I went into my new experience thinking I would have the enjoyment of an 18-year-old, or a 20-year-old college student. Sadly, my age played a huge factor in me not being heard, seen and often overlooked. It was difficult navigating college as a 42-year-old student.
The CPP orientation was my first realization that I would have to fight to be seen. As I walked into the orientation booth, I was greeted by a student with “Hi, are you a parent or a staff?” The question felt like a punch in the gut. I was neither of the two. I paused, inhaled and happily responded, “I’m a student.”
I had to quickly process my feelings and acknowledge the student’s blunder. Any other times this would have made me run away, but this time. No one was going to steal my shine. I proceeded to write Marline on a name tag and took my seat at the orientation event.
New students took a tour of the campus, a short briefing of the eight colleges and introductions to CPP’s counselors. The counselors were adamant that all students were required to take 15 units each semester to graduate on time. The faces of many of the new students, mine included, dramatically changed upon hearing the 15-unit recommendation. Up until then I had only taken 12 units, a total of four classes; adding an extra class was way out of my comfort zone.
The reality of college life was apparent to many of us. It felt like we were not treated as individuals; instead, we were treated like cattle, escorted into a room to enroll in classes for the fall semester.
According to CPP’S 2023 fall term enrollment summary, the average age of student enrollment is 22 years old, with a 23% enrollment for that demographic. The percentage drops dramatically for students over 30. For instance, 30- to 34-year-olds average 5% of enrollees, and it dwindles down to 2% for students aged 40 to 49.
I am one of the 399 students trying to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
I went over my availability and the need to keep my job schedule open. The student advisor I was assigned insisted I add the required classes regardless of a two- to three-hour gap in between those classes. As a commuter student, I needed classes that were scheduled consecutively in the moras the latest I could stay on campus was noon.
I remember her sounding like a robot: “Just take the classes. You need them. Don’t think about it and just add them.”
Although the advisers had good intentions, their strategy of “biting the bullet,” was not a feasible strategy for every student.
As I chose the classes to enroll in, I realized I was bound by my work schedule, which conflicted with my suggested school schedule. The thought of me not being able to meet the requirements started the tears rolling down my cheeks.
I broke down and said: “I’m sorry, but I can’t take these classes. I need to keep my job. I have to pay rent. I need money for food. I have a lot of responsibilities.”
The adviser shrugged her shoulders and said, “You don’t have a choice.” I felt defeated, I had expressed my concerns and somehow it didn’t matter. As I got up and walked out the door, I remembered I was cattle that needed to follow the herd.
I left campus that day feeling overwhelmed and wanting to abandon my dream of obtaining a college degree. However, true to my Latina roots and upbringing, I allowed a week to wash away my sorrows and began looking at different options.
I met with my academic counselor and other professors to assist me in balancing my academic and work schedule to little or no avail. Despite being unsuccessful in planning my academic and work schedule, I continued to try and find a solution.
Finally, I met with Lauren Furey, an associate professor and adviser in the communication department, who took the time to ask me: “When do you want to graduate? How many classes would you like to take?”
She asked me about my job. She informed me I could prolong classes for a year, giving me time to breathe and plan and rearrange my work schedule.
“You will graduate,” Furey said. “Your path will look different, but that’s OK.” This reassured me that I was on the right track to graduate.
I always heard you meet lifelong friends in college. Making friends has been difficult for me at CPP. My first semester I tried talking to students. I put myself out there. The students were nice, but I quickly realized we did not relate to one another. As much as I felt young, I didn’t dress, listen to or have the same interests as them. The friendships didn’t blossom as I hoped they would.
I tried befriending older students. Sadly, that didn’t work out as well. Older adults have children and spouses. They didn’t have time for lunch or meeting up after class. Their time at school was focused on lectures and completing assignments.
“Not only am I an older student, I am a mom, and balancing that has been the hardest part of being in school,” said organizational communication student Mazel Higa-Kazuma.
It is a struggle balancing work, school and personal life as an older student. There’s not enough time in the day to get everything done.
“In my younger, absent kids’ life, I think school would have been much easier,” said Higa-Kazuma. “Honestly, I think education would have been wasted in my younger years. As an older student, I have so much life experience that makes it easy for me to understand lessons.”
I do relate to Higa-Kazuma, I am more focused, organized and goal driven than I was in younger years.
Technology was another setback for me, I come from an area where you call someone on the phone to talk. Newer generations want none of that. You have to text them and keep it short. I find myself on many “how-to” YouTube videos to complete assignments that are focused heavily on technology, such as podcasts, video content and editing.
I learned a lot from my three semesters at CPP. I’ve embraced being by myself. I have let go of any preconceptions of college. I stopped looking for students to befriend and enjoyed many walks by myself exploring what CPP has to offer. I realized I loved creating art, and I shine when I could share a piece for my personality and things I love. For that, I will always appreciate my CPP college experience as a “forty-ish” college student.