How some Utahns navigate going to college at an older age

Older students may face unique challenges, including childcare and the fear of not being taken seriously by younger classmates.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

At a young age, Carlos Mayorga said, he felt pressured by his family and those close to him to seek a college education. But when Mayorga reached his early 20s, he didn’t feel ready.

“I didn’t come from a family of college-educated people, so I didn’t really have the confidence,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what classes to sign up for.”

Mayorga isn’t alone, as a growing number of students are waiting to begin their college education. Enrollment numbers of college students aged 25-34 went up 34% between 2001 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and those numbers are expected to increase another 11% by 2026.

Mayorga said his decision to wait was also based on changes in his own life. Mayorga came out after graduating from high school, and experiencing dating and relationships while tackling the responsibilities of college — when his heterosexual classmates had done those things in high school — meant that “my college education sometimes struggled.”

Ultimately, Mayorga began his college journey at 26, but other students return to college years or even decades after high school.

Gina Zupan was 53 and held a career for 30 years when she returned to school, after having left in 1977 due to an overwhelming workload.

Zupan promised her parents that she would eventually return to finish her college education, and fulfilling that promise was momentous and emotional, Zupan said.

When Zupan restarted college, she said, she felt out of place. “I got on campus, and it was so huge,” she said. “I didn’t know my way around and being of age it was like, I don’t know where these buildings are, and I don’t know how to get there and who do I ask?”

Gordon Storrs, an academic advisor at Salt Lake Community College, said experiences like Zupan’s are common struggles for older students.

“It’s a tough time for them because they think they’re older,” he said. “They immediately think they’re not going to fit in, [that] they’re going to be there with all those 18- and 19-year-olds, and those 18- and 19-year-olds are going to look down on them. They’re really worried about that.”

Storrs said financial, lifestyle or family background situations can affect why someone might wait to attend college. Any student returning to school, Storrs said, should try to tap into the resources available, including talking to academic advisors who can guide students.

For Zupan’s daughter, Gina Hansen, who returned to school at 34 after a pause during which she had three children, childcare was one of those resources that made a difference.

“I would take my daughter and drop her off and she would go to the daycare, and I would go to my class and then pick her up on my way out,” she said. “They’re very accommodating.”

Once in the classroom, other challenges can arise. Zupan said some students treated her differently because she came from a different generation.

“I remember this one time, we [were] working in a group and a young girl – no matter what I said – she just stopped, and you could just see her roll her eyes like, ‘That is the dumbest idea ever,’” Zupan said.

Zupan said she was reminded by her advisor that her experiences are worth more to a future employer than a degree alone.

After graduating from Utah Valley University, Zupan earned a master’s degree from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2017. Now 64, Zupan works as an associate clinical mental health counselor.

Hansen graduated from SLCC with an associate degree in 2020. She said she does not regret waiting.

“Would I have maybe benefited from doing things a little bit differently? Sure,” Hansen said. “But I think… and I know my mom has probably said the same thing pretty much – waiting does so much… it truly does.”

Like Zupan, Mayorga eventually sought graduate school. After graduating from SLCC and the University of Utah, he worked as a journalist for several years — including an 18-month stretch reporting for The Salt Lake Tribune — before earning a graduate degree from Columbia University.

Mayorga recommended anyone wanting to pursue higher education to do so, no matter the age.

“If college is something that you truly want,” he said, “if it is something that deep down inside of you that you want to accomplish, I highly recommend getting back into college or starting it for the first time.”

Patrick Kennedy wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.