September 30, 2005

47-year-old freshman tries hand at college

The academic year just began, but Brad Sugarman is already a campus celebrity.

During O-week he went to the usual first-year event—including the requisite frat parties—but for some reason people he had never met recognized him and knew his name.

The reason: At 47 years old, Sugarman is the oldest member of the entering college class, and easily more than double the age of any other undergraduate student.

Despite the fact that he was alive when Kennedy was assassinated, Sugarman is much like his less mature classmates and has had to acclimate himself just like any other new student. As he sat in the C-shop after the second day of classes, Sugarman voiced common first-year anxieties, in particular the difficulty of his honors physics class and the amount of homework he had already been assigned.

Sugarman has also gotten a taste of the college party scene, where, much to his surprise, he received a warm welcome, à la Old School.

"The strangest thing that's happened to me so far was my experience at the [Phi Delta Theta] frat party," said Sugarman, recalling that a fraternity brother asked him if he wanted to shotgun a beer. "They stuck a key in the beer, and all of a sudden there were all these people around me, and a girl even took pictures with her phone."

Sugarman said that everyone at the party was "pretty nice" and invited him to return to the house and hang out.

Originally from New Rochelle, a suburban town to the north of New York City, Sugarman lived in Tribeca before coming to Chicago. Though he had a job in financial information, he did not want to stay. He has never been married or had children.

"I hated [my job], and really wasn't satisfied with the whole corporate existence," Sugarman said.

His desire had always been to become an academic, and though already in his 40s, he decided that he was ready to go back to school. After the difficulties of finding teachers to recommend him and taking the SATs, he finally applied to college. Sugarman chose the U of C based on its strong physics program.

"I almost went to Brown," Sugarman admitted, noting that he was torn between the two schools. "They don't have a core, and I could have taken more science courses, but here [at Chicago] the science is stronger."

Sugarman's academic expectations seem so far to have been met at the U of C. He is taking honors physics, Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities, honors calculus, and French 101.

He plans on becoming involved in extracurricular activities as well, including judo, which he has practiced for many years, and perhaps fencing. Sugarman has an interest in theater as well, citing his age as an advantage.

"The benefit of being older is that I can actually play an older person," he chuckled.

When asked about dorm life, Sugarman responded that living in Maclean was actually preferable to living in some apartments. "Here you can have someone turn down their music, and there are rules, whereas in an apartment you might have a drug dealer next door," he said.

The University initially sent Sugarman a notice informing him that he was excused from living in the dorms because of his age. "I sent the notice back because I didn't want any special treatment," he said.

Though he does not want to be treated differently from other students, Sugarman admitted that it is difficult for an adult with the life experience of many professors to be completely inconspicuous among a crowd of 18-year olds.

Sugarman remembered, "I went to this one frat party, and some guy asked me, ‘Dude, how old are you?'"