By Nikki Babri
Rodney Hironymous (B.A. comparative literature ‘23) isn't a newcomer to UC Irvine. This marks not his first, second or even his third stint – it's his fourth (and final) return. His higher education journey, from the days of typing papers on a UCI library typewriter to witnessing the implementation of AI technologies, is a tale of resilience that has been 35 years in the making. Beginning as a model student in high school, his path took unexpected turns, including battles with addiction, periods of homelessness and a series of academic setbacks. In the final stretch of his UCI experience, his story becomes one of triumph over tragedy, and a testament to the wild road he’s traveled.
A rocky start
In 1985, Hironymous, a first-generation student, found himself at a crossroads after graduating one year early from high school. He did not apply to any four-year universities and, entering community college with no direction, found himself adrift. “And then I met this kid who’s drinking,” he says, which sparked the start of an addiction that would take him decades to overcome.
School faded from his focus, replaced by hazy years of partying. A job-related injury triggered a reevaluation of his life, and he was encouraged to return to school. In August 1987, seizing the opportunity, he once again explored educational options. Opting for UCI, he walked into the transfer office, boldly declaring, “Hi, I want to start school.” While not immediately admitted, he secured concurrent enrollment, with a condition: pass three classes with a C or better to become a full-time student in January 1988.
Exploring different majors, Hironymous discovered the global ranking of UCI’s comparative literature program through a friend. Fueled by the program's top-ranking status and his own passion for writing and fantasy literature, he confidently chose it as his major. “I had enough intuition to understand that your undergraduate major doesn't define your career path. Learning something valuable opens doors to various opportunities," he says. “And it has proven to be the foundation for all the fantastic jobs I've experienced.”
Sobriety, setbacks and support
Entering UCI marked a new chapter, but Hironymous faced an uphill battle. He struggled to balance academic responsibilities with the allure of a vibrant social scene. “It was either all studying or all partying. I wasn’t capable of doing both,” he confesses.
Throughout his academic journey, this internal conflict persisted. What began as occasional hangovers eventually spiraled into a life-consuming struggle. “Alcoholism is progressive,” he explains. “It started as just being a little hungover and it ended up being homeless, panhandling and doing hard drugs. I didn’t want to do it, but I couldn't stop.”
His battle with addiction ultimately required 15 rehab attempts. During his second try at UCI in 2000, Hironymous grappled with a new adversary: alcohol. Seeking help from the on-campus health department, he was connected to Alcoholics Anonymous and withdrew from school once again. As challenges mounted, a school representative helped secure him a bed in a nearby homeless shelter. He acknowledges, “It was one of those real pivotal moments where so many people stepped in to help me.”
In 2006, he achieved long-term sobriety from hard drugs, though a car accident in 2013 led to struggles with pain medication and marijuana addiction. After passing a UCLA Extension course, he regained his academic confidence, which had been dormant since high school. Achieving a high GPA while staying sober paved the way for his return to UCI. Amid the pandemic, he maintained sobriety, secured a role at Los Angeles Unified School District and gained approval to transition to part-time college work. He is grateful to management and colleagues at LAUSD for allowing him to prioritize and complete his degree.
Returning to school after another prolonged hiatus, he faced the fresh hurdle of balancing academic demands with work and family responsibilities. He credits his success in managing this juggling act to the steadfast support of his wife, Yuki Tomita Hironymous. The two met at UCI in 1999 and, despite her own demanding job, Yuki willingly shouldered extra household duties, caring for their daughters Emma and Maya, to support his pursuit of education.
Hironymous expresses deep gratitude to the entire UCI community. Professors, aware of his background, urged him to draw inspiration from his life experiences to motivate others – a shift that gave a newfound purpose to his personal journey. He also commends the unwavering support received from students such as Viviana Serrano, a fellow comparative literature student from a criticism class who showed him anything but criticism.
Highlighting the transformative power of education, Hironymous stresses the importance of effective writing – a skill that proves indispensable in his role as a contract analyst handling multimillion-dollar agreements. He connects the critical thinking and research skills honed in humanities courses to his professional success, citing their role in navigating the intricacies of complex technical concepts in his career. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve taken Humanities Core,” he jokes.
Forging a way forward
As he reflects on his own past, he regrets not reaching out for help during critical moments. Stressing the significance of seeking assistance for those grappling with addiction or other issues, he emphasizes that there are always people willing to guide and support, especially at UCI. Additionally, for students contemplating a return to education, he acknowledges the fear of rejection that often accompanies the decision to go back to school.
“After I wrote to the dean, I was immediately overcome with a fear of being rejected. I imagined him responding to say, ‘Sorry, dude. I don't know if you know this, but we’ve already let you in about 20 times. What's going to be different this time?’” he shares. “Which I would have completely understood. But I had to remind myself that I am not my past, and I deserve to do everything I can to better my future.”
Beyond completing his bachelor's degree, Hironymous has his sights set on obtaining a master's degree in supply chain management from University of Wisconsin-Plattville. As he begins this new endeavor, he plans to follow advice from his AA sponsor, who emphasized that whenever a step is too big, it’s important to instead break it down into smaller steps and work your way through one by one.
“Finishing this degree has always been so important to me. During every class, even when I was under the influence, I've always felt remarkably privileged to be able to listen to and learn from UCI’s brilliant professors in such a renowned program,” he says. “I'm so passionate about what education has given me. It is a gift.”
In a journey that began over three decades ago, Hironymous proudly celebrated his five-year sobriety anniversary in July 2023 and will graduate from UCI in December. For more campus resources on addiction, visit UCI Student Wellness & Health Promotion.
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