BY TONI LAWRENCE
When I was accepted to UCLA in 1996, I sent my "Intent to Register" letter along with a thank-you note. I was so excited, I had to thank someone. I recall writing, "You have no idea how this is going to change my life."
I was 34, married and living in the Palm Springs area. Looking back today on the eve of my graduation, I realize I was the one who had no idea how much my life would change.
I paid extra to spend the night on campus before my Orientation Day activities. I don't know where I thought I'd live, but the question, "with whom," never occurred to me. When I arrived, I learned that I was to share a dorm room in Sproul Hall with two 20-year-olds. One of them asked the obvious question after learning that, yes, at my age, I was indeed about to become an undergrad.
There were days over the next three years when that question would haunt me. Since transferring to UCLA, I don't know what was more of a challenge: my studies, getting to campus, parking or being in my mid-30s in an environment of 18- to 22-year-olds.
I graduated from high school early to start college, but I never finished. I worked my way up to a reporting position at a newspaper (my dream job!) and meant to go back, but somehow I always found an excuse. Primarily, I had a great job and a comfortable life. Why bother?
Ten years later, I finally stopped making excuses. Initially, I couldn't permanently relocate to Los Angeles, so I stayed with my sister during the week (only 80 miles away, versus 140) and I "dated" my husband on the weekends. Getting to Westwood became an endurance test. I was on the freeway by 5 a.m. and showered on campus.
I was fortunate to be hired to do media relations by UCLA Extension. Desperate to sleep a few nights in Westwood, I later had orientation-night flashbacks when I shared a studio on Landfair with a student who never missed an opportunity to celebrate the fact that she was 21 and could finally drink legally.
Somewhere along the way, I heard that former Chancellor Young's wife completed her bachelor's degree at UCLA in her mid-40s. I wondered if she had experienced the same quandary I did; I was embarrassed by the fact that I didn't have a degree at my age, yet equally embarrassed to be in classes with students who were born the same year I graduated from high school. Mrs. Young inspired me. She had done it, and somehow I knew I could find the perseverance to do it too.
It took three years, but I have finally finished something I started 19 years ago. Again, I feel compelled to write another thank-you note. UCLA has changed me for the better in countless ways. I received a first-class education (which was always the answer to the question, "Why are you doing this?"), but even better, the experience has taught me I can do anything I set my mind to. The beauty of education lies far deeper than any information you are tested on in class. Thank you, UCLA!