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Summa Cum Laude: A Mother’s Journey to Graduation

by Erica Kim

Photo courtesy of Erica Kim

UCI’s undergraduate homepage is inviting. It’s one big collage of pictures displaying students from all different backgrounds partaking in different fields, and some boasting school merchandise. But these pictures come second next to the banner of words: “Unique. Exceptional. Just like you.” It’s meant to inspire students to believe that, perhaps, this is where they belong — this is where greatness happens.

On the first day of class, eagerness is electric, and the next stage of life has settled into the the hearts of students. When Vanesse Hiten shows up with her head of silver hair and incredible historical knowledge, everyone assumes she is the professor. The undergraduate page forgot to represent this 48-year-old, third-year history major from South Africa. “Unique. Exceptional,” yes. “Like you,” maybe not.

Hiten wakes up at 4:45 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Even before the sun rises, she leaves her house by 5:15 to get to her train station by 6:15. It’s clockwork from there. The hourlong train ride to get to the Tustin Transportation Center is optimal for shredding through some readings. When she arrives, she packs up her bag and transfers to take the bus, and it’s another bumpy, 25-minute ride to campus.

By the time she follows the steps up to Ring Road, most students are still snoozing for an extra five minutes. She sits on the closest bench and resumes reading before her first class. The readings suffocate the slots of spare time Hiten organizes.

“I schedule every single thing,” said Hiten. “I even schedule meditation time, walk time, swim time.” Lickety-split, the day has passed, and it’s time to trail back home and, once again, crack open the books.

When she arrives home, she can’t enjoy the company of her husband or her grown kids. Her schedule demands attention, even at the cost of her weekends. Mournfully, Hiten trades in Friday night wine with friends for black coffee and scattered rain checks. Still, the rigorous drive that propels Hiten’s schedule now is the same discipline that allowed her to transfer from the honors program in Mt. San Jacinto Community College to the Campuswide Honors Program at UCI.

She was a finalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship (a highly-competitive national scholarship that awards the most ambitious of transfer students with $40,000) and has landed medals awarded by the All USA Coca-Cola Team (a national scholarship sponsor). These are only a few of her conquests; Hiten has won a hefty number of prestigious awards given to the most ambitious of students for her academic work and volunteer service.

But to Hiten, her goals are not egged on by the quantity of her achievements.

“[I do it] for me, for my kids, for my mother,” said Hiten. ”I realize I’m seen differently by these 18 to 24 year olds, but it’s okay.” Hiten’s is a path painted by pride and understanding from her friends, husband, kids and especially her mother. They encourage her to keep going, unhindered by age. Tears collect at the corners of her eyes when she remembers telling her mother she’s going back to school.

“My mother didn’t get to finish high school,” said Hiten. “She was like, ‘Wow. You can do it.’ She was shocked, but at the same time, proud.”

Hiten is not an average undergraduate in age, but also in experience.

“I’ve lived through things,” said Hiten. “I’ve lived through a change, a regime. I’ve lived through the revolts that took place. I come from South Africa, so I’ve lived through apartheid, and I’ve lived through the Democratic Republic.”

After high school, she traveled through the Middle East, picking up multiple trades. Over time, she was a typist, receptionist, secretary, physician assistant and realtor, even once owning two different businesses. Back then, Hiten was taught by the world; one trade led to another. Right now, Hiten finds her education in the confines of the classroom, and dutifully attends to all of its fixings.

“If I can impart just one piece of knowledge to somebody, then I feel my being here is positive,” said Hiten.

There are nights that feel like there isn’t enough wine in the world to drown out the endless readings or fill the crater etched by lack of sleep. In those moments, the only rational thing to do seems to be to flip books and tables over. But before she does that, Hiten imagines the caps that will be thrown into the air and the hugs from her husband and her kids that will be exchanged at her graduation.

“I have put a carrot in front of me, and that carrot is earning my PhD. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to achieve it. Whatever sacrifices I need to make, I’m gonna make them,” said Hiten, noting that she will be applying for graduate school this coming fall.

The three little words in her mind beckon her back to her seat: summa cum laude; to graduate with the greatest honor. They compel her back to her desk.

“When you feel like giving up, push through. Because it is worth it.”


* Correction from an earlier posting of this article has been made to reflect Vanesse Hiten’s scholarship status with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship as a finalist and not a recipient. *