UCLA Radio’s Campus Stories presents our third interview with non-traditional Anthropology fourth year transfer Kassi Gooch. At 39, Kassi considers her time at UCLA a “second life.” In her past life, she worked in the food industry as a chef. She speaks about finding a community on campus through the Bruin Guardian Scholars group, a club for former foster youth students, and navigating campus through a vastly different lens as someone who has been working in the world much longer than the average college student. Kassi’s experiences and identities have shaped her journey to becoming a student at UCLA.
[please note that the following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity]
So would you like to introduce yourself, tell us about yourself, and how you identify as a student at UCLA.
My name is Kassi. I am a fourth-year anthropology major and I am a non-traditional age student. So this is like my second life that I’m starting over, and I’m studying anthropology. This is how I describe my identity to other people, but inside, there’s just a lot more. You know, there’s just a lot to everyone’s life.
How have your personal identities and your experiences shaped your experience at UCLA?
Yeah, the thing that feels different to me is feeling like I’m older than a lot of people that I’m in class with. And not that it necessarily shows, but when I don’t know how to do something, I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m starting to sound like my parents. Like, I can’t figure out this thing on the computer. What?” even though I grew up with a generation that had computers. But, I’m 39 and it’s just kind of weird because even though everyone’s an adult here and we can all still talk and use the same slang, there are milestones in my life that I’ve gone through that some of the other people that I’m talking to, like my classmates, haven’t yet. And they can’t really wrap their heads around it. Like just having worked for so many years in the first place is a big one. In some ways, that makes my academic life easier because I’ve already gone through having to learn time management and all these strange expectations. And in a way, academics is easier than it was the first time I tried to go to college because I’ve already “adulted” all these years. But it is a little strange when talking to someone else about it and usually, people are surprised because they think I’m younger.
You’ve said that even though we’re speaking the same language and we’re all adults, there’s still a difference and a disconnect there. How has it been finding a community on campus? And have you found it?
Not really for the age aspect. I know there’s a non-traditional age students group on Facebook, but it doesn’t seem very active. I mostly talk with other transfer students or I connect with the Bruin Guardian Scholars, which is a community of former foster youth. I was also in kinship care when I was younger, so I was actually kind of surprised to be a part of that because I’m so much older and I was so excited. Don’t age out of that program. But as far as groups for students who maybe feel like I do about not being young while in college, it hasn’t been easy to find something. I will find individual people like me. Especially with all of us having masks on, you just don’t know until you talk to them. But it still feels weird because college is mostly a place for young people. It’s who everybody expects to be here.
What has your experience been with finding a nice intersectional space where you feel comfortable in all your identities?
That has also been difficult because I transferred here during the Zoom 2020 year, so there wasn’t a lot of on-campus space that I had access to in the first place. This quarter is my first time even here, so just learning the campus has been the main thing I’ve focused on, rather than finding places where I can belong, but I think that’s slowly coming. For instance, when there are events offered. I know BGS had a study jam and that was pretty cool because there were all different kinds of people there: people from all different backgrounds, like working students, young people who are just starting college, and everyone. That was really cool and that was really the first time where I was in a group on campus where it was obvious that we all came from different backgrounds, but we were all sort of doing the same thing. And it was really cool to have all the different conversations in there. So, I would say that things that go on inside the Student Activity Center make it a great intersectional space. I try to walk by there pretty often now and I’ll find something that’s for everyone. It’s the one place where you can tell everybody comes from different places and different walks of life.
You mentioned BGS a few times. How has the foster, the former foster youth community at UCLA been important to you, and what does that community mean to you?
So being a former foster youth is not something that I keep in the front of my mind. Over time, it’s just something you know you went through, but you don’t really show it to other people. It’s so weird to even say this out loud. When I applied for university, one of the questions on there asks if you’re a former foster youth, and I actually didn’t know if I should check it because I’m older and I was like, “Well, it says former, but also does it still count?” I wasn’t born in California, so I had to Google, “Do I check yes on FAFSA for this?”
So, I did and I’m so glad I did because that’s what prompted the Bruin Guardian Scholars to start contacting me and sending me the emails like, “Join this group!” I had to ask them if there was an age limit because a lot of scholarships, grants, and programs for former foster youth are up to age 26. And I thought, “Well, since I’m an adult, maybe I don’t count. Maybe I don’t need help anymore.” But the truth is, even when you’re an older adult, most people still can call their parents or still call their families to ask for help or still move back home and I’ve never had those options.
So, it was really cool. I don’t know, it just feels like I still matter. I can still get help. And it was strange because I never officially went through the system as far as foster homes. I was in kinship care, which means you have family members that adopt you. I lived with several different family members, which is still a different family and a different home than your actual family. So even though it’s family, it’s kind of not family at the same time. I just never thought I counted for any of this stuff, so it was really cool because I’ve been building my life by myself. It was also really helpful over the pandemic to be assigned a social worker, which is something I never did. I never sat and talked to a social worker or any of that stuff. And it felt strange at first. I was like, “What do you mean? I’m not a kid, I shouldn’t have to do this”. But especially during COVID quarantine, it was actually really nice just to have a real person to sit there and talk to and work through things. And it helped a lot. I really think that and just the resource of knowing I could get food really helped me get through that Zoom year. I’d lost my job, like most people in America, I was paying for college, and getting the help was super cool, super great. I love BGS. Anyone that I know who has gone through things like this, they probably know that somehow you do find other people like you. I don’t know you, just attract it. Throughout my life, I’ve had a lot of friends where we were friends and then later we both find out like, “Oh, wait, like, you don’t have a mom, either.” You know, you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know this.” But, somehow you connect. To any of my other friends that are thinking about returning to school (and there’s a lot of us in my generation that didn’t finish school the first time), I’m always like, “Make sure you sign up for any former foster groups. Make sure you sign up for that, it is for you too.” Because it’s just life-changing just to have the support.
So how did you end up at UCLA, like your journey up until now? And what did you do previous to coming here?
When I first went to college, I had been living with my oldest sister and she was getting married. So it was just like, “Okay, boom, you’re an adult, you’re 18. Here, good luck.” My sisters were older than me, but not that much older, so they were just learning how to be adults, too. They couldn’t really be much of a resource other than me being able to call and vent. So the first time I went to college, I went to culinary school because I thought it would be really cool to have a job where I didn’t have to worry about getting food. I thought, “If I work in a restaurant or I work in a grocery store, I’m always gonna be fed.” And I also just really love to cook; my dad was a really excellent cook. And food is one of the ways I connected with a lot of different families and learned things about people. So, I went to culinary school. I actually went to a community college, so I could still get a degree in hotel management or something. I was taking my basics while I went to culinary school, I got a job at Whole Foods, and eventually, it just got hard. And I know it’s hard for everybody, not just people who are on their own. I think it’s probably hard for all young people to come out of the high school experience and be an adult for the first time: going to college and working at the same time, and just learning how to be an adult while also literally sitting in class learning. So, I don’t think I could handle it at that age, and I eventually just stopped going to class because I was like, “Oh, well, I have a job, it’s fine. I’ll go back, I’ll go back.” And I never did. Plus, this was around the year 2000. I lived in Houston and Iran happened, and then the World Trade Center thing happened, and then the recession happened, so it just didn’t seem like college was important anymore. It kind of seemed like having a job was the only thing that was important because a lot of people didn’t have jobs. And I did. I had worked my way up to a manager and I was hiring people who had master’s degrees and PhDs, who no longer had jobs because the stock market went bust. People were financial analysts and things, and they were trying to get a job in a grocery store, cooking food. I would be sitting there making these decisions like, “Is this person going to quit because they’ve never done this kind of work?” or “Do I just be nice enough to give everyone a job?” It just didn’t seem like college was important and it just seemed like I made it. I thought, “I’m done. I’m able to pay for myself during a recession, this is all I have to do.” But after a few years of working in food and food retail, you get tired of the expectation of being available 24 hours a day. Just because you’re off, it doesn’t mean you’re not available, and you could be scheduled until 4am and have to come in at 8am. After a while, it just gets on you: having to be the person to make the schedule and do that to other people and trying to convince them it’s in their best interest. I started to feel like I was exploiting people. And I was just sitting in one manager meeting and I thought, “You know, I never did finish that college degree. And maybe I can do more than just make schedules for a restaurant. That doesn’t take much, there’s more I can do in life. And I can examine food in a way that’s not like literally just making it for selling.” So, I thought about how I originally wanted to go to school for archaeology because growing up, I always wanted to be Indiana Jones. And I also thought about how I love to learn about food culturally. And so I thought, “Oh, anthropology would be super cool.”
First of all, I just started looking up things because I love spooky stuff. I love CSI-type stuff. And I love history. And I love culture. So I was just looking things up and I found that you could volunteer at the La Brea Tar Pits, cleaning fossils. I signed up for that, but I ended up volunteering at the Natural History Museum. There, you actually work with scientists and things, so I was talking to them and I was like, “Whoa, these are my people.” I felt like I really fit in there and it was super cool. So, I signed up for one summer class at community college just to see if I could handle working and going to school. And I loved it. It was great. And so I was just like, “All right, signing up for four classes now.” And I went in and they showed me the paper to transfer to university because my credits were old, so I knew I had to start over from scratch. So they were like, “Here’s what you need to do, here are the degrees we offer that you’re guaranteed to transfer into: California State or UCLA.” So I did that plan and I was planning on going to California State because in my head, UCLA was some prestigious school that was unaffordable and you had to be super smart. Not that I wasn’t smart, but still. And so I just thought, “Oh, Cal State, whatever.” And then I started going to different outreach things. I went to West Los Angeles College and they have a lot of outreach. They had counselors that come and try to recruit you, so I actually went to the different colleges. And actually, California State didn’t have much. They would just come to campus and be like, “Yeah, apply if you want.” USC takes you on a tour and UCLA is like, “We promise you can afford things if you try.” So, I applied just thinking, “I’m gonna apply, see if I get in, but I’m just gonna go to the place that would give me a better break financially.” And actually, it was UCLA that did, so that’s where I ended up going. Plus, I felt like, “Wow, I got into a school that people think is a prestigious school.” It’s really cool.
Could you expand a bit more on how your past experiences, such as culinary school and community college, have affected your perspective, interests, and studies at UCLA?
At first, I was getting away from culinary or thinking of examining it in a different way. But I took a class on the history of food in the Atlantic world, I took a class on anthropology and it’s pulling at me like, “Oh, you still love cooking.” So now, I’ve just started thinking of ways I can incorporate my past life with what I want to study. The thing that’s affected me the most is the mindset that it’s difficult, but it’s not that difficult to get things done because I’m already used to having multiple priorities coming at me at the same time, just from working. And I also have a lot of experience I can reflect on, so it’s really easy for me to go to discussions and actually talk when I know a lot of people tend to be really quiet. It’s also easy to write papers because I’ve been through a lot of life. So that in a way makes it easier.
In some ways, it makes it easier. In some ways, it makes it harder to narrow down what I actually want to do after this. Because all of a sudden, everything can become interesting. It’s like, “Oh, wait, this relates too and so does this. Oh, great. Now, what do I do?”
So the last closing question is what do you plan to do after you graduate? Or what do you want to do?
Yeah, that is the hardest question that anyone could ever ask me. When I started out, I thought, “Maybe I’ll study forensic anthropology. Or maybe I’ll go to a museum.” And then now I’m like, “Oh, I do still love studying bones. But I also really love studying food.” And then, it’s so hard because last year, I got it in my head that I was gonna apply for an MD, Ph.D. to become a forensic pathologist and have a forensic anthropology background because there’s not a lot of jobs for those. But there is for forensic pathologists, and you make a lot of money. And I was like, “That sounds crazy. And I’ll be like, 50 when I graduate, I think I can do it.” But now this year, I’m in person and I can connect better in classes and take different kinds of classes, so I’m like, “Maybe I do want to be an archaeologist, maybe I want to see what people ate. Or maybe I want to be a paleopathologist and find out the nutrition in people’s bones.” And then sometimes I’m just like, “Maybe I just want to work in TV or film and make documentaries about food or an ethnography of restaurant workers,” and I just wanna do everything. Plus, now that I’m a second life, I’m like, “Oh, I can do everything. I’m proving it to myself right now.”
So, I don’t know. I’m gonna do one or all of those things. I think I found a way that I can connect bones and food or artifacts and food, so hopefully, I can do that and still get experience in the film industry.
Kassi represents facets of UCLA that most traditional college students wouldn’t acknowledge – we are glad to share her story. She currently runs an Instagram where she posts pictures of real, unstaged food she makes for herself.