In many ways, U.S. Navy veteran Daryl Barker grew up at UCLA. With a mother who went back to college while he was in middle school, Barker spent countless afternoons at Ackerman Student Union perfecting his Dance Dance Revolution moves in the former arcade.

Barker (who uses both “he” and “they” pronouns) doesn’t remember making college plans at the time, but their mom does. “She says I told her I didn’t think I’d be successful at UCLA as an undergraduate, so I’d probably go to a smaller school for that,” they said. “But I wanted to go to UCLA for grad school.”

That plan, forged around age 12, proved prophetic. After serving six years in the Navy as an electrician’s mate first class with a qualification in submarine warfare, Barker went on to study politics at Occidental College and is now working toward a master’s degree in library and information science at UCLA, with plans to graduate next spring.

Back at their old campus stomping grounds, Barker has found a new mission: They are particularly passionate about connecting nontraditional, and often underserved, students — veterans, transfers, students with dependents, and others — with the vast resources of the UCLA Library and helping students utilize those resources to empower them in their education.

It’s a commitment that grew out of his firsthand experience of just how overwhelming navigating library and college resources could be for a 25-year-old first-time student. It made little difference that Barker was a technical specialist and a leader in his military community — understanding the workings of the university was something entirely new.

“I was operating a nuclear reactor on a submarine and doing it at a pretty high level when I separated [from the Navy]. Six weeks later, I was in college, and there’s a 19-year-old sitting behind the desk at the library,” Barker said, recalling how awkward it felt transitioning from expert to novice in the blink of an eye.

“To have to go to someone who looks like they know what they’re doing, in a place where everyone appears to know what they’re doing, and ask for help on really basic things like ‘How do I access a database?’ — it was a really high barrier to ask for help.”

Ultimately, he did ask, and he learned. Connecting with a group of transfer, veteran and exchange students went a long way toward making him feel more comfortable asking questions. But Barker also admits he was privileged to have a college-educated parent, a sort of built-in resource on a wide variety of college questions, from how to best utilize office hours to how to develop a research prompt.

Still, they stressed: None of this knowledge is intuitive. It all has to be learned.

“These are not skills that we ever actually teach folks when they get to college,” Barker said. “Library instruction fills that kind of space. There are all these little skills that are combined to make students successful in higher education, and they’re never taught. Making those invisible requirements visible is a thing that really energizes me.”

Barker has been able to help provide access to those resources and to teach those skills in his roles as both a student research assistant at the Charles E. Young Research Library and a graduate student peer advisor at the UCLA Veteran Resource Center, assisting nontraditional students. They plan to continue with these efforts after graduation.

Barker is currently applying to doctoral programs in their field and ultimately hopes to either work with community college students or develop programs for nontraditional students arriving at four-year institutions.

“The work I’m trying to do — and doing,” Barker said, “is creating a culture of inclusion for folks who are not traditionally represented in higher education.”

And just as they did as a kid dancing in the UCLA arcade, they’re making that happen, step by step.