A groundskeeper at UC Santa Cruz for more than a decade, Katharina Pierini is fulfilling a dream, long put on hold, this weekend as she graduates with a bachelor’s degree.
Pierini, 54, first enrolled at UCSC in 1994. But a family situation drew her away from her studies after her first quarter. And life continued to intervene. She worked. She raised her daughter. And eventually, she took a job as groundskeeper at the university, where she worked for more than 10 years before deciding to re-enroll.
Despite balancing her studies with full-time work, she said never missed a class or assignment.
“Finally, I got to go back and do what I wanted to do, what I was good at back then,” she said. “When I get into something, I just get into it, and I had the support of my family — my husband, my daughter.”
Pierini is set to walk across the commencement stage on Saturday as she is awarded her bachelor’s degree in language studies. It’s a moment more than 27 years in the making since she took her first UCSC class. And time, she said, has only sweetened her feeling of accomplishment.
“Some things change,” she said. “But to feel like I didn’t just squeak through — I did it, and I did well. And that’s a good feeling.”
While her path to her degree dates back nearly three decades, her connections to the Santa Cruz campus extend even further.
Raised in Switzerland and Italy, Pierini first came to the U.S. in 1985 to attend a summer English program at UCSC. Santa Cruz’s culture and natural beauty immediately struck a chord. People were walking around barefoot, she recalled, long-haired hippies were lounging downtown, girls playing soccer in the city’s fields. “I just wanted to come back,” she said.
So two years later she did, buying a plane ticket and immigrating to the U.S. with $200 to her name. Pierini soon married, and after a few years in Santa Cruz, she and her husband moved to the Sierra Foothills to join a gold-mining operation.
Back in the Santa Cruz area, Pierini earned an associate’s degree in horticulture from Cabrillo College before transferring to UCSC in 1994 but soon had to drop out. She found her way back to the school 13 years ago when she took the position of groundskeeper — largely, she said, because she needed a job with benefits.
But working in such close proximity to where she had once studied nagged at her. She would find herself chatting linguistics with students at Kresge College, where she worked. And she would from time to time run into a former professor, emeritus linguistics professor James McCloskey, who encouraged her to complete her degree.
“Whenever he saw me he would say you need to finish — it’s good for people to finish,” Pierini said.
In 2019, she re-enrolled, taking advantage of flexible scheduling from her department and a heavy tuition discount for university staff.
“My department has been great, allowing me to work later, come in early,” she said. “So in the middle of the day, I could run to class and come back, go to the Zoom meeting and come back.”
Not only was Pierini the oldest student in her class, she was older than many of her professors. But she said she never felt unwelcome and became completely immersed in her studies and her rekindled passion for language and linguistics.
Her family lost its home in Swanton to last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex fire and had to relocate farther up the North Coast. But with the finish line in sight, Pierini didn’t let that stop her.
As for her next steps, Pierini said she isn’t sure. “This wasn’t really at my age a career move, you know,” she said. “Not ruling anything out.”
She’s considering taking her studies further, into graduate school. But for now, her other work continues. After her degree is conferred Saturday, Pierini will be back to work Monday, keeping up the UCSC campus.
Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.