Super seniors in our midst


A fifth-year student’s academic reality

We’ve always been told that college will be the best four years of our lives. But what if those four years turned into five, or even six?

Fifth-year students, also known as “super seniors,” seem to be increasing in number every year. Students across UC Davis are choosing to extend their time as undergraduates depending on their academic goals, their extracurriculars and their future endeavors. Sara Sweeney, academic counselor for the College of Letters and Sciences (L&S), advises these students on a path that fits best for them.

“A lot of times I see [L&S] students […] looking for additional experiences like a second major, an additional minor, study abroad –– where that path is going to go [is student-led],” Sweeney said. “[Students] are used to high school where you were [there for] fours years and then you’re done. But at UC Davis […] you tell us when you’re done.”

Sweeney, a UC Davis alumna and former super senior herself, understands that academic, familial or financial pressures may make students feel pressured to complete their undergraduate education in four years. However, she emphasizes that a lot of students are open to the idea of staying longer.

“I encourage students to do what works for them –– no student’s path even in the same major is going to look the same […] just because there is so much variety and choice,” Sweeney said. “Of course, we want students to know about requirements, [but] figuring out that you can graduate every quarter, that you aren’t in a class of students moving all through the same thing, makes [it so that] they can kind of do [their] own thing, whatever that turns out to be.”

Fifth-year English and evolutionary anthropology double major Alyssa Hurst transferred to Davis after many years of community college and working full time.

“A lot of transfer students you may talk to say that Davis is [overwhelming and] that [they] want to get out as soon as possible –– and I sort of had the opposite reaction,” Hurst said. “Once I got used to it, I thought [that] there was so much good here. I wanted to do it all.”

Hurst decided to extend her education by two quarters in order to incorporate her many extracurriculars, including study abroad in Japan, anthropological field school, English critical honors program and applying to graduate school. She’ll be graduating from L&S this winter with no regrets.

“The decision to take a fifth year […] is really subjective –– basically, those really cool experiences I would have had to sacrifice to take classes,” Hurst said. “It makes sense for some people, and doesn’t make sense for others.”

As L&S caps students at 225 units for their entire undergraduate career, graduation is relatively straightforward, whether that be in three, four or five years.

“In L&S, [we try to] make sure that every student can graduate in the time that they want, but sometimes the time that they want is not four years,” Sweeney said. “If you start off [as] a physics major, there’s a plan; you’re going to get the classes and move through, [but] if you find out that you want to be a physics major in your third year, that might be a challenge. That’s what I kind of see, for L&S –– we experience that more than any other college.”

The College of Engineering makes it available for their students to graduate within four years plus a quarter and between 190 and 230 units on average, since there is no unit cap. Pam Kisting, academic program coordinator for mechanical and aerospace engineering, meets with fifth-year students for degree checks more often than an L&S advisor would.

“Maybe 30 to 40 percent of students continue on [to a fifth year],” Kisting said. “The majority of our students do probably get out in four, […] but we definitely have students that stay.”

Kisting explained that staying an extra year depends on whether the student wants to focus on real-world experiences like internships and “co-ops” (extended internships), or the 19 units of classes that a particular quarter holds.

“The reality is that what internship you have […] is going to be the most important factor to what job you get when you graduate, […] but that means that [a student is] going to strategically weigh staying longer,” Kisting said. “[And] here if you want to pick up a minor or double major, you’re basically guaranteeing yourself staying longer than four years –– if you’re okay with that, fine, but it you aren’t then you need to be very strategic with your planning.”

With a heavy workload, engineering students are advised to delegate their time efficiently in order to support a healthy GPA. Rosa Morales, a fourth-year mechanical and aerospace engineering double major, looks forward to her fifth year of focused work and leadership opportunities.

“I didn’t want to rush my double major [because] it could get pretty intense,” Morales said. “Now my fifth year will be pretty relaxed, and next year […] I can focus on my personal statements [and] getting good letters of recommendations –– it’ll open up my schedule so I can focus on getting into grad school.”

As a first generation college student and the current vice president of the Chicano and Latino Engineer and Scientists Society (CALESS), Morales credits the time she was able to focus on the club as a motivator for her future goals.

“There’s a lot of things that I’m learning being an officer that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” Morales said. “If I had been trying to get out of here in four years I probably wouldn’t have had the time to get so involved.”

With regard to her students’ success, Kisting wants to motivate engineers like Morales to go at their own pace, no matter what their academic plan may dictate.

“I want students […] where they can be academically successful,” Kisting said. “[But] there’s this bureaucratic side of higher education saying that you need to turn these kids out in four years. [But because of] the different accreditation process that we have to adhere to […] you have to have a solid curriculum that will prepare students for employment in the industry.”

Despite the pressures, Kisting hopes that it’s a student’s own personal choice that determines whether they stay for longer than the traditional four years.

“You gotta listen to your gut,” Kisting said. “If you’re okay with [it], we’re okay with it.”

Written by: Emilie DeFazio –