At 65 years of age, Benjamin Clinton, an interdisciplinary studies student at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), has no plans to hold back his career aspirations. In fact, like most of his fellow graduates who will walk across the commencement stage May 15 and 16, he sees his bachelor’s degree as a critical step toward professional advancement.
“Just by having a bachelor’s degree while working for Los Angeles County will enable me to move up in the system,” said Clinton, a Carson resident who has been working in Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services’ (DPSS) GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) program for 31 years. “My degree will make me eligible to take the various tests needed to be promoted.”
GAIN provides employment-related assistance to people receiving services from California’s CalWORKs program. The program helps people become self-sufficient and independent by finding them employment and helping them advance to higher-paying jobs and transition into better fields.
“All you needed was a high school diploma or an associate’s degree to get many of the positions available when I first started working for the county,” said Clinton. “Even my current position requires a bachelor’s degree.”
As a GAIN service worker, Clinton helps his clients find jobs by providing them such services as childcare, transportation, and money for work clothes, and he assists those going to college with funding for books and supplies.
“The program that I’m involved with helps college students with support services so they can continue their education and still raise their families,” he said. ”What’s ironic is that some of the program recipients who I’ve worked with were Cal State Dominguez Hills students. They were on welfare and going to college.”
A Long and Winding Academic Road
Clinton has two adult children in their 30s who have also earned college degrees. But unlike them, his journey through higher education has spanned nearly five decades.
“I first went to college back in 1967 at Valley Community College. I was 17 at the time and it was what I was supposed to do, go to college,” he said. “I had a family friend who was an accountant recommend I take book keeping and accounting classes to become an accountant. But it didn’t work. I got put on academic probation and ended up getting a full-time job. It started out as a summer job, and I just stayed instead of going back to school.
“I finally went back to college around 1976 after I got married. Then I got serious. I found myself on the honor roll at Compton Junior College. I ended up taking the credits I earned at Compton J.C. back to Valley J.C. where I got my associate’s degree. Then I put off transferring to a university for about 30 years to raise my family.”
It wasn’t until 2006 that Clinton went back to college. He wanted to pursue a career as an NBA referee.
“My children had earned their college degrees, so I thought why not go back to school to get mine? I thought all I would have to do was use my associate’s degree from Valley J.C. to enroll at Cal State Dominguez Hills,” he said. “But the lady in the PACE (Program for Adult College Education) program just smiled at me when I told her about my credits. She said ‘Those credits from 1969 are no good.’”
Instead, Clinton’s return to a college campus began at El Camino College, where he earned the credits to transfer to CSUDH.
“It’s a bit strange going to school at my age. I was old enough to be the father of many of my fellow students, and to some, their grandfather,” said Clinton, who in his interdisciplinary studies program at CSUDH studied culture and labor, such as immigration and the labor movement’s fight for a living wage. “I would blend in and get involved in some of their conversations. It was a strange but rewarding experience for me being with my younger classmates.”
One final glitch would delay Clinton’s path to his bachelor’s degree.
“It turned out—likely due to some clerical error—that I was able to transfer to CSU Dominguez Hills without having completed my general education courses,” he said. “When I was told this, my face dropped. I had to go back to the junior college level. I completed my general education at Compton Junior College to get my bachelor’s degree at CSUDH.”
Although Clinton received his B.A. last fall, he still looks forward to participating in commencement.
“My kids want me to walk. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting my master’s degree, but $20,000 is way out of my budget. And now at 65 years old, what will I be able to do with it by the time I’m done?” he said. “But I am currently taking a photography class. I just enjoy the classroom and the learning experience so much.”