A double graduation
First-generation Anteater Faith Couts ’23 and her son Hunter Wetzel ’23 will receive
their degrees together
When Faith Couts walks across the stage on June 16, 2023 at the UCI School of Social Sciences’ commencement ceremony to accept her diploma, she will be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. But she won’t be the only college graduate in the family for long. The next name called will be her youngest child, Hunter Wetzel.
“Just to brag about my mom, she’s got some crazy honors,” Wetzel says. Couts is a recipient of the Chancellor’s Award, the Schonfeld Scholar Award, the UCI Alumni Association’s Distinguished Anteater Award, the campus’s Independent Achiever award, and completed the Social Policy and Public Service Honors program, all while working multiple jobs on and off campus.
This moment was more than three decades in the making, and it’s not the last school stop for Couts. She’s been accepted to the Ph.D. program in the UCI School of Education where she’ll research the factors that enable non-traditional students like her to thrive at four-year institutions.
“A first-generation, low-income college student, Faith is a post-traditional student—a mother who raised and supported her family, continued coursework, and when the last of her children entered college, came to UCI,” says Jeanett Castellanos, associate dean of undergraduate studies in social sciences, and one of Couts’ advisors. “Faith knows firsthand what it takes to overcome challenging circumstances.”
Couts started community college classes at age 18, in her hometown of Las Vegas, as a new single mom. Despite a robust support system of family and friends, she found working full time to support her daughter, Karlee, navigating new parenthood, and going to college was just too much to juggle. School would have to wait. Seven years later, Couts married in Orange County, and then gave birth to her son, Hunter Wetzel, and focused on raising her family.
Later, with her daughter fully grown and her son about to head off to college, it occurred to Couts that she, too, could go back to school. Her second husband fully supported the idea.
Looking back, Wetzel thinks Goofy may have played a role. In the Disney animated film from 2000, An Extremely Goofy Movie, Goofy follows his son to college.
“We watched that movie all the time when I was a kid, on VHS and then on DVD when the VHS got worn out,” Wetzel laughs. “That was the first thing we both talked about when she decided to go back to school. It's literally just like that movie.”
Couts enrolled at Saddleback College, and like so many non-traditional students, she struggled with imposter syndrome initially. Wetzel remembers that his mom asked him for help as she wrote her first few papers, but he soon found she was surpassing him academically.
Couts worked full time at Trader Joe’s while going to Saddleback, and after the COVID-19 pandemic started, she balanced being an essential worker with online classes. When she graduated summa cum laude from Saddleback, her family piled into a car and drove to a socially distanced “Carmencement” ceremony to receive her diploma.
Couts’ perseverance through that incredibly tough period was not only for herself, but also to be an example for Wetzel, who was facing his own struggles at college.
A skilled trumpet player and a gregarious extrovert, Wetzel enrolled at UCI as a music major. But he wasn’t enjoying his coursework and then, at the end of his first year of college, COVID-19 turned everything upside down.
“In one day, Hunter lost his home on campus; he lost his job, because he worked here on campus,” says Couts. “So everything changed in one moment.”
For Wetzel, moving out and living on his own had been one of the highlights of college. During his second year, as classes continued online, he felt so unmotivated he contemplated dropping out. But his mom encouraged him to take classes he enjoyed and find a way to make the most of his college experience—even amid tough circumstances.
He took her advice, and switched his major to anthropology, which he found fascinating.
“Without my mom, I might not even be graduating,” Wetzel says. “It’s been difficult at times, but I’ve loved my last two years of study.”
In hindsight, Wetzel credits those dark days of the pandemic with adjusting his perspective about college and life.
“I like my life more now, to be completely honest,” he says. “I have more drive and purpose.”
Trust the process
Couts asked her son’s permission before applying to transfer to UCI. Their recollections vary about how enthusiastic he was about the idea, but he definitely agreed. With years of experience in the workforce, as a parent navigating schools and children’s healthcare, Couts came to UCI determined and prepared to seek out the resources and mentors she would need to succeed.
“The game changer for me was already having that life experience, and the sort of navigational capital,” she says. “I knew I needed to hit the ground running.”
That navigational capital led her to reach out to the Social Sciences Academic Resource Center for advice, and she learned for the first time that she could change her major, even though she was a transfer student and had applied to sociology. Based on her interest, they recommended she look at the social policy and public service major, so Couts attended an online information session hosted by Castellanos.
Without my mom, I might not even be graduating. It’s been difficult at times, but I’ve loved my last two years of study.
“I told my husband as soon as I hung up the Zoom, ‘I found my mentor. This woman is going to be my mentor,’” she remembers. “Whatever she says to do, I'm going to do. And I did. I added the major the next day.”
While taking classes, Couts also worked three campus jobs, choosing positions that would expose her to the breadth of available campus resources, and to non-traditional students. She was a Pathways Peer Educator at the Student Outreach and Retention Center (SOAR), a peer educator at the Division of Career Pathways, and a researcher for Students Activation Social Innovation (SASI).
“As a peer counselor, I work with communities that are low-income, marginalized, and first-gen students,” she says. “We connect and try to bridge that gap for them in accessing different resources.”
She talks to students about how to approach faculty and introduce themselves, how to find tutoring resources, where to go for professional development to have someone review their resume or help them create a curriculum vitae.
“Faith brings valuable life experience to all her work with students – young adults overcoming challenges,” says Castellanos. “She encourages with compassion and high cultural humility and did not allow the challenges of COVID-19 to diminish her contributions to the UCI student community.”
Under Castellanos’ mentorship, Couts also completed a research project her first year at UCI, looking at non-traditional students’ adjustment to a four-year university, doing qualitative research.
“I really thought, for me and what I’d seen in my life, people who are educated have better life trajectories, and I wanted to study how that worked and why that was,” Couts says.
“My work informs my research questions,” she adds. “And I also get to pass on knowledge to other first-generation students, to students who don’t have that social and navigational capital coming from their families. I didn’t have that either, but I get to help them.”
Her senior year, Castellanos encouraged Couts to continue her research, but to work with a second advisor, and recommended Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education, who researches the outcomes of higher education. So Couts continued her research with a focus on the wellbeing of first-gen transfer students—drawing a definition of wellbeing from Arum’s work.
“Wellbeing doesn’t mean that you lack stress, but that you’re flourishing and have purpose and meaning in your life,” Couts says. “Do students feel fulfilled by their time here?”
As for her own purpose, Couts applied to master’s programs with the goal of professionally counseling students within a year or two. But Castellanos had another idea: a doctorate program where Couts could continue conducting research that would help guide policy and programs to support first-gen transfer students and pursue a career in academia.
At first, Couts rejected the suggestion. She applied for master’s programs convinced that would be the fastest track to working with non-traditional students and making a difference in their lives. It was Arum who eventually convinced her that a doctorate program could allow her to work directly with students immediately, while also building a research portfolio that could inform higher education policy and ultimately have the greatest impact.
Mentorship, like Arum and Castellanos provided to Couts, is one of the keys to transfer student success. Couts advises other transfer students to seek mentorship, and to connect to peers for emotional, academic and spiritual support throughout their college journey.
“I met Dr. Castellanos within the first week I started at UCI, and she literally changed the trajectory of my life,” Couts says, tears filling her eyes. “Meeting her and having her mentorship changed my life course.”
“Trust the process,” she adds. “A mentor will help you find your purpose. You don’t have to know what that is yet—I started at Saddleback College wanting to be a dietician!”
This spring, Couts was accepted into the UCI School of Education’s doctoral program in education policy and social context, where she will continue her research.
“My heart is with the non-traditional student, that path that isn’t the easiest,” she says. “I want the work to have meaning, and to influence policy with my work. The students who take the time to share their narrative with me, I want them to know in the end, it will serve students who come after them.”
Trust the process. A mentor will help you find your purpose. You don’t have to know what that is yet—I started at Saddleback College wanting to be a dietician!
Pride and purpose
In their two years together in the School of Social Sciences at UCI, Couts and her son only took one class together: a course about conspiracy theories. If Couts arrived in class after Wetzel was seated, she would join him sitting in the back of the class. But if she arrived first, she sat in the front row.
“She’s one of these overachiever types, which is a beautiful thing—she gets so much work done,” says Wetzel. He recounts a story of her arriving home at 8:30 p.m. at the end of a day of classes and going to her three campus jobs, and insisting she just had one more discussion question to answer before she could relax. “But, you have to remember to take time off and take care of yourself, and do things you enjoy,” he adds.
Wetzel, who currently works doing quality assurance for video game company Night Dive, plans to pursue a career creating video games. Although not directly related, he anticipates using skills from his anthropology degree in gaming. For example, he’s responsible for monitoring gamers’ conversations on Discord servers about new game drops, and analyzing their feedback to make recommendations for improving and debugging the games.
He got into gaming when he was very young, watching his older sister play. She’s now an associate producer for Netflix games, and Wetzel hopes to follow her footsteps into game development.
“A huge goal of mine is to write diverse characters in diverse settings that a lot of people can relate to,” he says. “For me, growing up, it was easy to look at iconic video game characters like Ken from Street Fighter or Cloud from Final Fantasy, where they’re white with blond hair, and I could see myself and feel inspired. I think that’s really important for others to experience.”
Couts is bursting with pride for all her son has achieved.
“He is thriving in his anthropology coursework, graduating within the four-year timeframe, and has secured a job post-graduation in gaming,” she says. “I’m so proud that he persevered through it all.”
For a moment, Wetzel worried it might be embarrassing to have his mom at school with him.
“It's really been nice going to school with you,” he tells his mom before heading off to his last class of the day. “I'm happy that we both saw it through and that you're going to continue to see it through with a Ph.D.”
“It feels weird to say it, because she’s my mom,” he adds. “But I’m so proud of my mom, you have no idea.”
- Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences