Sharon Haanstra, a third-year transfer student and psychology major, walks the UC Davis campus wearing a shawl, chandelier earrings and stylish glasses. Heavy backpack in tow, she has just left her bio-psychology class and is beginning to stress out about her upcoming final. On the surface, Haanstra seems like the typical undergraduate student. She is anything but that.
Haanstra is 60 years old, lives in Woodland and has already had a career providing care for mentally ill people before coming to UC Davis for the second time. She is a re-entry student, and is one of nearly 1,500 at UC Davis who range from 25 to 60 years old.
“People always ask me, are you a professor? A grad student? And I say, no I’m an undergrad,” Haanstra said. “It’s embarrassing, but also not. I’m proud of it.”
Haanstra began her education at UC Davis in 1972 at the age of 18. She had been a good student throughout high school, but struggled academically at Davis. At the time, she said she thought this was because she was not cut out for the academic rigor of a place like UC Davis. Now, she said she looks back and recognizes that it was not her own shortcomings, but the effects of a traumatic event from her teenage years. When Haanstra was 16, she lost both her parents and younger brother in a plane crash. Having grown up in Connecticut, Virginia, New York and Arizona, she then moved to Orinda to live with her aunt and uncle.
“After that, I was on autopilot. I didn’t really grieve, I just kind of went on with life,” Haanstra said. “The first couple years at Davis, I pretended everything was OK, but everything wasn’t OK.”
Haanstra said she had hit a wall, chose to leave school and what was initially an indefinite break turned into 40 years of her life.
“It’s the single greatest regret of my life,” Haanstra said.
She worked low-skill jobs like caregiving or clerical work, and traveled. Without her degree, she wasn’t able to move much further in her career. But going back to school wasn’t something she considered for a long time.
She said she briefly entertained the idea of going back in her 30s, but a conversation with her uncle discouraged her from it. For years, she said she internalized the notion that she was not meant for a college education, until she began taking courses at Marin College and realized she could, in fact, succeed academically.
Though Haanstra’s case is unusual because of the time she took to come back to school, her experiences still reflect those of many re-entry students, which UC Davis defines as students over the age of 25.
“A lot of these students had to leave school for financial reasons, or personal reasons. Some are veterans, or people going to school for the first time,” said Victor Garcia, advisor at the UC Davis Transfer, Re-entry and Veterans Center.
According to Heather Doumbia, a 43-year-old single mother, sociology major and fifth-year transfer student, many re-entry students have spouses and families, and many have built successful careers already. Adjusting to a campus that can feel like a small city and being surrounded by students years and sometimes decades younger, is a challenge.
According to Doumbia, students don’t know how to react when they see someone much older than them in class.
“Sometimes they give me less responsibility in group projects, or don’t really listen to me, because they think I can’t do it,” Doumbia said.
Often, she said these reactions come down to the fact that students see someone different from them.
Doumbia found her way to UC Davis against the odds. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, Ore., and says her parents had a troubled relationship and that drug use was common. She got her GED and left high school at the age of 16 and embarked on a series of different life paths.
She said she joined the army, but dropped out after a few weeks of boot camp and encounters with what she said was an anti-woman sentiment in the army at the time. She later attended a private business college, became homeless for a while and eventually quit that too.
Doumbia has been married twice and has children from both marriages. Two of her children have mental disabilities, and she has spent many years working low-wage jobs, living off welfare and providing care for her disabled children. At various times, she has also played the role of mother figure to her nieces and nephews, as well as her husbands’ children from other marriages.
After bouncing around the country and finding their way back to California to live with her mother, Doumbia and her children settled in Fairfield. Doumbia’s daughter had been homeschooled for most of her life due to her disabilities. The school district eventually decided that her daughter was ready to be integrated into a traditional school setting, which initially scared Doumbia. Eventually, however, it provided her with inspiration.
“I made it a point, if she was going back to school, I’m going back to school,” Doumbia said. “When I was younger, I was a quitter. This time I wanted to do something and complete it.”
Doumbia completed her associate degree at Solano College and is now at UC Davis, with her sights set on eventually getting a master’s degree. Her experience with children and the rocky road that led her to UC Davis have inspired her to work with developmentally disabled children and with kids in situations like she was once in. She also said that she was further motivated by what she saw at Solano College, seeing students with potential but lacking direction and guidance.
“I saw things that frustrated me and I wanted to change them. The way for me to do this is to further my education,” Doumbia said. “My teachers took me and brought me up. It makes me sad to see other students failing. It shouldn’t come to that point.”
Doumbia is proud of how far she has come and said she doesn’t mind when her friends say her neighborhood is too quiet, because she has gone from neighborhoods where shootings and prostitution were common to a neighborhood where her children can play outside and sleep safely at night. Still, she, like other students, sometimes struggles with being able to connect with students in her classes.
“The important thing for traditional students to understand is that a lot of transfers are here to get in and get out. A lot of us have other obligations, people at home that need us. We’re on a different path,” said Dustin Ellis, a 26-year-old transfer and re-entry computer science and engineering major.
Ellis also said he believes re-entry students are a rich resource for traditional students, with their years of experience in the real world and careers of their own.
The Transfer, Re-entry and Veterans Center seeks to help these students adjust to campus life and to provide the resources necessary for their success. They are constrained by a small staff and limited budget, and according to Hope Medina, Retention Services coordinator at the center, it is impossible to reach all the students who can benefit,
“We try to focus on the population we directly serve. It would be nice to be able to do outreach and education for the larger campus to educate them about these students, but we can’t with the resources we have,” Medina said.
Medina also said that the most important thing for traditional students to know is that all students have a story to tell, and that she hopes for mutual respect and consideration from both sides.
“Respect people at where they are at and where they come in, and what they bring. It makes for a richer and more ideal university,” Medina said.
Haanstra said she is hoping to attend UC Davis full time next quarter, having split her time between classes and work as a caregiver in San Francisco for the past two quarters. She says that her age does make it difficult to be integrated on campus, and coming back to UC Davis brings back memories of her family and why she left in the first place.
While she said it is hard being a re-entry student, she also said it is without a doubt the most rewarding thing she has ever done. For her, going back to school is as much about having the opportunity to no longer work entry-level jobs as it is about coming full circle for herself and completing school for her parents. Her sights are set on a master’s degree and she hopes to start her own practice providing rehabilitation counseling for mentally ill patients.
“Maybe I’ll call it the Haanstra House,” Haanstra said.
NISHANT SEONI can be reached at email@example.com.