Graphic designer, computer programmer, photographer, alcoholic, model, restaurant manager, art history major at UC Irvine –– it would seem that Loren Blackwood has lived not one life, but several.
While popular culture generally portrays college to be the immediate next step after high school, this is not the case for many individuals, including hundreds of current undergraduates at UCI. Attending college full time is not just for young adults age 18 to 22, and some do not experience higher education or earn degrees until much later in life.
The Free Spirit
Blackwood’s life is an excellent example of this. Growing up in affluent Palos Verdes, she graduated from high school in 1975 and continued on to San Diego State University to study oceanography, biology and psychology. However, the summer after her sophomore year, she got a job at Hughes Aircraft Company, doing computer programming and graphic design, and lost the motivation to complete her degree.
“The skills that I learned from that graphic arts period I still use today,” Blackwood, 56, said. “I’ve always been a designer, wanting to design something beautiful.”
While at Hughes, she met an engineer from New York who became her boyfriend, and moved back to New York City with him. The couple lived together in Queens for several years. When they split up, she moved to Manhattan and began working as a server at several restaurants. She would always work her way up to a manager position.
Yet Blackwood has also always enjoyed learning and being a student. She enrolled at junior colleges from time to time wherever she lived.
Blackwood moved back to California after 10 years, recovered from her addiction to alcohol with help from Alcoholics Anonymous and eventually settled down in Orange County with her most recent partner, with whom she lived for 17 years, until September 2013.The two of them designed and built a new home in Newport Beach together and Blackwood decided to finally get her bachelor’s shortly after the home’s completion.
“Most people don’t believe how old I am and I don’t believe it either. All my friends are young. I don’t really hang out with people my own age. I think it’s because of my energy level,” Blackwood, who is of Japanese and Irish descent, said.
After graduation, Blackwood plans to become an art broker and sell art for people in the Orange County art collecting community.
“A lot of things I do are compulsive, but it’s always positive now. I take lots of pictures. I work hard in school. I funnel my impulsiveness into positive things.”
In just a few weeks, Blackwood will graduate with a degree in art history and celebrate her 13th year of sobriety.
The Second Chance
“Are you in school?” a middle-aged customer asked Ryan Jurnecka in 2009. Jurnecka was 24 and working as a customer service representative at a Best Buy in Long Beach.
“You need to go back to school. You’re too smart to be working here,” the man said when Jurnecka replied that he was not a student.
This reaffirmed everything Jurnecka had believed, prompting him to reapply to UC Irvine, where he had originally been a student from 2003 to 2006.
While a drama major, Jurnecka had gotten C’s in most of his classes. He was burned out from high school AP exams and extra-curriculars and spent most of his free time practicing and hanging out with his rock band, Rebel Mod Outfit, which consisted of Jurnecka, his older brother and a mutual friend. He wanted to live the rock star lifestyle. He’d drink instead of going to class. After Jurnecka’s third year, his father, who had been paying his tuition, forced him to withdraw from the university.
“My father thought that getting a C average meant I wasn’t getting a real education,” Jurnecka explained.
For the next seven years, he worked a series of jobs, first in his hometown of Santa Cruz, and later in Long Beach, where he moved and learned to support himself on his own.
“I had a lot of growing up to do,” Jurnecka admitted.
Jurnecka worked at Boston’s, Gameworks and finally, Best Buy. While briefly working as a pharmacy technician, after his time at Best Buy, Jurnecka’s father agreed to help him out with tuition if he returned to UCI before turning 30.
Jurnecka returned as a full time literary journalism major at age 28, in September 2013, and has since gotten A’s in all of his classes.
“I used to feel some resentment toward my father for pulling me out. I could have done it. I could have graduated in 2007,” said Jurnecka, now 29.
But Jurnecka feels that his father ultimately did him a favor and that he is much more suited for a career in writing. He plans to write professionally after graduation.
The Good Example-Setter
Originally from Hawthorne, 38-year-old LaShonda Carter spent her late teens and early twenties working in retail. She then went to beauty school, earning a license in cosmetology, and opened her own hair and makeup business. Other than a brief, two-semester stint at Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1997, she had never attended a university and did not plan to ever earn a bachelor’s degree.
Yet over a decade later, she decided to take a few classes at Cerritos Community College, mainly to inspire her son.
“I wanted him to see academics. To realize that even though you’re not necessarily into school, you can still be successful at it,” Carter said.
Still, Carter had no intention of ever transferring. Cosmetology was working out for her and she liked doing hair. Then, an English professor approached her after class one day, asking where she planned to continue her education.
“We talked about my grades and I told him that I wasn’t necessarily that interested in transferring,” Carter said.
He asked, “What if it were a perfect world and you did not have to worry about finances? Would you apply to a UC?”
Carter did not know anyone at UC Irvine, had never been to the campus or even to the city of Irvine. But she promised to apply to the CSU’s closest to her home, to UCI, and to several other UC’s, at her professor’s insistence.
In Fall 2012, Carter and her son, now 14, moved to UCI’s Palo Verde housing, and Carter began her studies as an English major. She picked English because she was good at it. She could write papers.
“When I first went back to school, it was really to show [my son] that you can be successful in school and probably to prove to myself that I could be successful in school,” Carter explained.
Yet this is not her motivation now. After enrolling in her first African American Studies course at UCI, she discovered her passion for the study of culture and added African American Studies as her second major.
“There was so much that I didn’t know. There were things that shook the foundation of everything that I thought I knew about society,” Carter said.
Her current plan, after her graduation next spring, is to continue on to graduate school.
“I think I want to be a professor. It depends. Sometimes I don’t want to. We’ll see what happens. I’m the kind of person who just takes things as they come.”