During his first two years at Yale, Josh Tarsky lived in a tent behind the Stop and Shop on Whalley Avenue.
It was not the first time he had lived somewhere unconventional. When Tarsky, 28 and now living with his girlfriend, was 19, he dropped out of Ohio University and moved to San Francisco, where he soon became homeless. After spending six months in shelters and grappling with drug problems, Tarsky joined the Moonies cult. He stayed with them until they tried to arrange a marriage for him, at which point he decided it was “time to leave.”
Soon Tarsky began working on an Alaskan fishing boat, where he saved up enough money to travel. For three years, he traveled around the world with his brother, passing through and finding odd jobs in India, Nepal, Pakistan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Egypt and Holland. Upon return to the United States, Tarsky attended classes at Florida’s Palm Beach Community College, where he excelled academically, before eventually joining Yale’s Special Student Program. He will graduate with a Yale degree next month.
About 30 students are enrolled in Yale’s Special Student Program for a bachelor’s degree, Director of Special Students Saveena Dhall said. Their stories are not all like Tarsky’s; their backgrounds range from former jeweler to professional chef. This fall, former New York Ranger All-Star goalie Mike Richter will join them. Though many other undergraduates are unaware of the program, special students are often selected because of their remarkable life experiences and can bring unusual perspectives to the classroom, Dhall said.
“The program is full of interesting students,” Dhall said. “We have people with a rich range of experiences and stories. Some students face challenges balancing their schoolwork with outside life because of a full time job or health ailments, but everyone in the program has great promise to succeed at Yale.”
Between 30 and 70 additional students in the program, which has existed since 1977, attend classes for credit but not a degree, Dhall said. Degree special students, who range in age from their mid-20s to their late-60s, are assigned to residential colleges and can participate in intramural sports, though all special students live off campus. Applicants to the program are chosen based on their past academic, work and community experiences, according to the admissions Web site.
“With this program, Yale really accepts that people can change,” Tarsky said. “Yale is very enlightened in that way. I’m finally really getting my act together and have a lot of plans for the future.”
Judy Cornier, 66, was also looking for a life change when she applied to the Special Student Program.
“I wanted to finally graduate from college,” Cornier said.
Cornier was not satisfied with the brief education she received at the southern women’s junior college she attended during the 1950s, which she described as a “finishing school” where she was taught “to pour tea.” A women’s and gender studies major, Cornier said she believes it is important for young women to think harder about planning their lives than she did.
“I got married at 20 and had twin sons, who I am very glad I stayed home to raise,” Cornier said. “But it is also necessary for women to know better than I did how to support themselves because the strangest things happen in life.”
Cornier, who has retired from a career in communications, said she would like to volunteer to work with abused women or similar causes after she graduates. She said she has enjoyed the Special Student Program and was surprised that despite her age, professors and other undergraduates did not treat her differently than younger students.
Another mother returning to school, 34-year-old Jennifer Sheridan went into the jewelry business after becoming a single mother at age 19. After marrying and attending classes part time at Westchester University in Pennsylvania, Sheridan joined the Special Student Program. Sheridan said she hopes to teach high school chemistry in Connecticut after she graduates this spring.
“As a parent, I want to put my money where my mouth is, in terms of what I believe education should be,” Sheridan, a chemistry major, said. “I would also like to eventually attend grad school here at Yale.”
Not all special students are from the United States. Neil Simpson, 37, is a native of Scotland. Fifteen years ago, he dropped out of a university in Perth and began a career as a professional chef, working in restaurants in Scotland until he married and moved to the United States. He cooked professionally for a while longer in Greenwich, Conn., before applying to the Special Student Program.
Set to graduate this spring, Simpson said he can finally enjoy cooking as hobby again, instead of as an occupation. A history major, Simpson said in recent years he became especially interested in popular history books and knew where his interests were guiding him.
“I was fed up with unsatisfying jobs,” Simpson said. “I wanted to pursue something more intellectually satisfying.”
Most special students said they share Simpson’s desire for “something more.”
Tarsky, one of these students, plans to spend the next five years in the military’s Special Forces before pursing a writing career. A theater studies major, he wrote the play “An Ape and an Audience,” performed during the Dramat’s Playwriting Festival in February.