Hansen's Long Road Leads from MSJC to Columbia University

Sun City resident Aaron Hansen may be the first student from Mt. San Jacinto College to transfer t...

Sun City resident Aaron Hansen may be the first student from Mt. San Jacinto College to transfer to one of the most prestigious universities in the nation.

Hansen, 28, will attend Columbia University in the fall to study history. He'll be a part of the tiny 1.2 percent of transfer students the university accepts every year.

MSJC doesn't keep records of where its students transfer, but it's rare when an MSJC student gets accepted to a private, Ivy League university. It's especially exceptional for someone like Hansen, who used to have no interest in getting an education.

"My high school (performance) was terrible, and when I first started college in 2004, it was terrible," he said. "I just had no direction."

Hansen grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and graduated from Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo after moving to California at age 17. When he first attended MSJC in 2004, Hansen took night classes and worked during the day. In his attempt to balance his busy schedule, he ended up dropping some classes and receiving F's in others.

"It wasn't that I was dumb or anything; I always felt like I was smart. I retained information, but I was lazy, basically," he said. "I didn't apply myself. I just wanted things to be handed to me instead of working for them."

Discouraged, Hansen left school in order to focus on work. Once he grew tired of working menial jobs, he decided to return to school in 2010. At that point, Hansen had lost his job and had to move back in with his mother.

"I was one of those people who always thought, 'I don't need school. I can make as much as I will not going to school just by working my way up in a company.' But it's very hard to do that," he said.

During his first year back as a returning student, Hansen happened to take courses with a few of the most challenging professors at MSJC who pushed him to apply himself. When he received his first A, he was encouraged.

"Once you gain confidence, you need more of a challenge," said Hansen, who went from a 1.8 GPA in high school to a 3.7 GPA in college.

Hansen continued to get more involved on campus. He took honors classes, where he completed extra assignments and projects. He worked as a supplemental instructor and tutor in various subjects, such as political science, anthropology and history. He served as president of the Amnesty International Club, educating the student body on global humanitarian issues. He also held events on campus, such as a religious debate and a question and answer session with Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert.

Erik Ozolins, co-director of the Honors Enrichment Program and professor and chair of anthropology at MJSC, was one of Hansen's mentors. He remembers Hansen as a dedicated and focused student.

"Aaron is an excellent student," he said. "He was always prepared in my classes and ready to discuss or to absorb the material."

Ozolins also appreciated how Hansen never waited until the last minute to write a paper, like many college students are inclined to do.

"He would always get a jump start on any assignment," he said. "For the honors paper due at the end of the semester, he would have a completed rough draft at least a month early."

Hansen's hard work eventually paid off. During his last year at MJSC, he was chosen as a recipient of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. Now, the foundation will pay him up to $30,000 a year to attend Columbia University.

Although he was also accepted to top universities in California, Hansen said he chose Columbia because he wants to be a writer, focusing on history or current events. Because New York City is the publishing capitol of the world, he decided to go for it.

"It's kind of like my last chance. It's either go to school and do well, or go to school and do OK and get a decent job," he said. "But I never wanted to settle for mediocrity. I want to do well."

It might've taken him longer than usual to graduate from community college, but the time has helped Hansen grow. He's gone from not wanting to go to school, to believing that education is for everybody. He's gone from someone who hated to read, to a student who reads voraciously. He's also gone from lazy to reliable.

He's happy with the differences he's made in his life, but knows he'll have to work even harder at Columbia.

"I don't think I've reached my potential. I think we all have unlimited potential," he said. "I'm just going to keep going and push myself."

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