When Wayne Low Kum graduates this spring with a B.S. in biological systems engineering and a minor in psychology, it will mark the end of a journey over 20 years in the making. Wayne started at UC Davis as a first-year student in the late 1990s, but returned to school in 2020 to finish his degree after dropping out his senior year.
“It’s never too late to learn or to go back to school, and when an opportunity like this presents itself, you can’t be scared,” he said. “There’s no shame in learning.”
Wayne switched his major from computer science to biological systems engineering in his third year, finding that it was the perfect combination of his engineering mindset and his interests in biology and physiology. Though he enjoyed the major, his mother lost her job during his last year and he had to move home and work to support the family.
With his engineering background from UC Davis, he found a job in biotechnology, first as a validation engineer and later as a consultant for validation engineering and project management. Despite his success, Wayne always wanted to return to school, and even inquired with academic advisors multiple times over the years about the possibility, but never was able to find the time.
“I had that nagging feeling of, ‘I didn’t finish something,’” he said. “I don’t like not finishing things, and as a project manager, I feel the need to make sure things get done.”
When work and classes went virtual in 2020, his girlfriend encouraged him to finally do it, so he reached out to the biological and agricultural engineering (BAE) department and made a formal plan to finish the remaining courses he needed for his degree.
New Perspectives to Old Challenges
Though the prospect of going back to school for engineering was scary, Wayne was encouraged and invigorated by how welcoming the BAE department was.
“I had tons of questions at the beginning and my professors, advisors and fellow students have all been very patient and helpful,” he said. “As long as you’re there to learn, they welcome you, want to help you and want you to ask questions.”
As a returning student, Wayne has a new-found appreciation for how much he learned in the BAE program as he has realized how many technical concepts he has had to play catch-up on. He has also learned to keep an open mind despite his experience and has gained new perspectives and learned new approaches to the problems he had worked on for the last two decades.
He specifically remembers learning about the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) objectives in associate professor Stavros Vougioukas’ class and being amused when the same concept was used in a work meeting a month later. He says that seeing how what he’s learning in class directly applies gives him the drive he never had before.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know why these things I was learning in class were applicable to the real world, but now that I do, it gives me a deeper understanding and keeps me motivated,” he said.
No Shame in Learning
As the school year has continued, Wayne has become much more confident and comfortable with telling his story—something that had previously been a source of shame. He’s also found that the people around him are not just accepting of his story, but inspired by it.
“I thought it would be a social hang-up, but everyone I’ve talked to tells me that they couldn’t go back to school for engineering themselves, and that an MBA is easier,” he said. “Hearing that encourages me and shows that you’re not going to get socially shamed for learning, no matter what age you are.”
When he completes his B.S. this spring, Wayne will continue his job as an associate director of project management in genomic engineering, but that doesn’t mean his career won’t continue to improve. He says he has already felt more motivated at work since returning to school, which helped him earn a promotion. He also looks forward to having more new experiences that can help him better solve problems, lead projects and connect with the engineers and scientists he works with. He will also leave UC Davis with a greater confidence and the ability to one day pursue an MBA or PMP.
Above all, he is excited to finally earn his degree because it means he will never have this lingering regret.
“I could’ve easily retired and not done this, but it would have always been that thing hanging over my head and weighing on my shoulders,” he said. “I’m really happy I’ve had this opportunity.”