Returning Student Finds Her Community

Annie ChaoUC Davis is known for its welcoming spirit, but what is the campus climate like for students who don’t follow a traditional path to college?

“I'll be honest, I was terrified to come back to school as an older student, but that quickly dissipated,” said returning student Annie Chao (B.A., communication, ’18). “There is an unwavering sense of kindness that blankets the campus.”

Chao began her journey at UC Davis in 2009 with the intent of earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and becoming a doctor. But she struggled during her freshman year, and was dismissed from the university. “I believed that science was the only path for me, and I ignored the signs that I was in the wrong major, like miserably failing classes and being placed on academic probation,” Chao said.

When she failed to get readmitted, Chao changed course and worked in clinical research for several years. She came to realize that the most fulfilling part of her job was working with people — fostering connections and listening to their stories. Chao decided to follow her passion and applied for, and was accepted into, a communication major in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science in 2017. This time, she thrived. 

“I could not believe that I was actually enjoying the classes I was taking and everything I was learning made sense to me,” she said.

Overcoming Academic Dismissal

Reaching out to fellow students, no matter their age, was an important part of becoming comfortable on campus once she returned, Chao said. “I was really ashamed of being dismissed from school, but I was overwhelmed by the support I received,” she said. 

Chao was inspired to face her fears by an essay from Chancellor Gary May lauding the diversity of UC Davis. “Come as you are,” he wrote. That’s when Chao decided to share her story more widely. “I was hanging on to a crippling fear that my fellow college students would judge me for my mistakes or my age,” Chao said. “From that point on, I decided I would make my experience here not just the best college experience, but the best UC Davis Aggie experience,” she said. 

Chao found a welcoming home in many campus groups. She worked with incoming freshmen and international students to help them feel part of the student body, emceed Picnic Day, and was commencement speaker in December 2018. She also put her communication degree to work during commencement, orchestrating an Instagram “takeover” of campus social media and posting to the @UCDavis page.

“Sharing my story emphasizes that it’s okay not to know what you want to do with your life, it’s okay to fail at things, and it’s good to show your vulnerabilities,” Chao said. 

Chao said she wouldn’t change her path to graduation, but she does have advice for students who may be struggling to find the right major. “Take the time to find your helpers,” she said. “It could be professors, TAs, advisors, or peers, but finding people who wish for your success and have your best interests at heart is really important.”

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science