54 years separates youngest, oldest students at BYU

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Johnny Gubbay is not an average BYU freshman, and not just because of his height. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Gubbay doesn’t look like he just turned 17 a few months ago.

Born and raised in Spain, Gubbay and his family moved to Dubai, where he lived for the last seven years before coming to BYU. When he was 15, Gubbay moved from an English curriculum to an American curriculum. Because of this, Gubbay finished school as a 16-year-old.

Now at 17, Gubbay has run into some different challenges while attending BYU.

Johnny Gubbay studies outside of his dorm at Heritage Halls. At 17 years old, Gubbay is one of many other non-traditional students at BYU, set apart by his age. (Jordan Murray)

“I’m doing intramurals, and I had to have my parents sign my concussion policy because I’m not 18 yet,” Gubbay said. “It made me feel like I was back in school having to get permission slips. But the worst is when people are like, ‘Wait, you haven’t served a mission yet? What?’ and I have to explain that I’m only 17 and I can’t go yet.”

Gubbay explained other pros and cons to being a young student. Although he encounters frequent culture gaps between American and European culture, “educationally, there are no problems.”

“Sometimes, I almost feel like I have an advantage,” he said. “I’m learning things here that I already learned back home.”

Gubbay said that he’s mature for his age. He said no one believes he’s 17. “The size does help though. If I was 5 foot 8 (inches) and I spoke really high, then I think it would be more noticeable.”

Former BYU student Donna Fuchs was accepted to BYU when she was only 16-years-old.

“When I got accepted … I had to personally meet (with) one of the heads of admissions for a personal review,” Fuchs said. “Basically they sat me down to see if I was mature enough for college. At the end of the meeting they accepted me. … I asked if I was the youngest, and (the interviewer) said they had a 14-year-old there.”

But not all students at BYU came straight from high school, and not all were born in the ’90s.

Sondra Swensen is also a non-traditional student studying public relations at BYU. She will be turning 50 later this year.

“I came back because I made a goal to finish (school) 30 years ago; it’s been on my list of to-do’s,” Swensen said. Although she is enjoying being a student, Swensen said some elements of school were not what she expected and her professional experience sometimes goes unnoticed.

“It’s been extremely challenging,” Swensen said. “I spent my career in marketing, and there are things that we are learning about that I actually did … I know the business world, I know what they want. It’s almost like (the professors) want to tag me, make me into a 20-year-old when I’m not. Some do a good job of not doing this, others don’t.”

Swensen explained that to her, the focus at BYU is the 18–24 age range. “If you fall outside that scope, it’s like you are a square peg and they want you to fit in a round hole,” Swensen said. “If you’re not round, they don’t care. I’ve questioned my decision quite a bit. I could have gone to a different university that caters to non-traditional students.”

Swensen said the majority of her professors try to make her feel comfortable, but she would still like to see changes. “I just wish they would leverage my experience more, think outside the box a little more, make considerations towards what I’ve done in my life,” Swensen said. Swensen spent 26 years in marketing management, 10 of those years as a manager.

“For me, coming in here, I quit a job where I had a whole department underneath me, to being told that if I am five minutes late I will be penalized. And if I have questions I’m told to ‘hang in there,'” she said.

Swensen has advice to anyone considering coming back to school. “My advice would be to think twice about coming back to BYU,” Swensen said. “Pick a university that is set up to support you better, with programs that are more geared towards the non-traditional student.”

Ari Davis
Jerry Snow sits in the Wilkinson Center to study and eat during his break. Snow is a 71-year-old man who has come back to school after retiring. (Ari Davis)

However, not all non-traditional students share Swensen’s opinion. Gerry Snow, a 71-year-old graduate student at BYU, has an extensive educational background. Snow has degrees from New York University, Stanford and Harvard Law School.

After Snow retired from his career practicing law, he, once again, began the process of going back to school. “I decided that I wasn’t done yet,” Snow said. He’s recently received a BA from the University of Utah, and Snow is now in the second year of his master’s program in linguistics.

After attending the graduate studies dinner, Snow said he was told that he was the oldest entering graduate student his first year back at BYU.

“I think it’s cool (being back in school),” Snow said.”I’m here to study and fit in as best I can. I have to commute from Salt Lake City every day… but my wife is very supportive, although she probably wants more of my time.”

Snow said he feels like he’s treated like any other student. Snow participates in group projects and eats lunch in the Wilkinson Student Center, and he feels like he receives no special treatment from his teachers.

“I have a very positive relationship with all my professors,” Snow said. “I believe my professors know my background, but I’m treated just like every other student in the class, and each of us has previous experiences that enable us to contribute to class discussions. I think my legal work experience may have played a role in my syntax professor asking me to TA his class, but I think his impression of my abilities from our interaction in the first year was far more important.”

Snow also has some advice to those considering pursuing education later on in life. “Consider it,” Snow said. “I think it should be an option when people are thinking, ‘What do I do when I retire?’ Going back to school should be an automatic option.”

The students walking on campus each day could be 17, 71 or anywhere in between. Education is their drive, and these non-traditional students prove that BYU’s students are not all the same.

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