In the early '80s, Walter Luna got what must have been a prize to any 10-year-old techie: a TI-99/4A. Clunky by today’s standards, the early home computer with a cassette drive launched his entry into BASIC programming language.
Luna didn’t know it then, but his technology fascination would come full circle four decades later when he enrolled in San Jacinto College’s applications programming specialty degree program.
Now almost in his 50s, Luna is looking to exchange his longtime Houston Fire Department career for his dream job troubleshooting and developing computer programs.
Finishing what he started
Although Luna is closing in on almost three decades with HFD, he has never finished a degree. He wants to change that.
After one semester at the University of Houston in the early '90s, he switched to San Jac to ease his wallet. But juggling two part-time jobs and college classes proved too much. Instead, he pursued fire school and launched a firefighting career in 1994.
One motivation to return to college now is to ease into retirement.
“I’m looking for something where I’m making more income, and it’s not so physically demanding,” he said.
Another motivation is his mom, who earned her master’s degree in her 60s, and an uncle who worked in the computer industry in its infancy.
“He told me this was a developing technology: ‘This is going to be an upcoming field you’re going to want to get into,’” Luna said. “Between him and my mom, they’re the ones who got me set on this path.”
Tackling challenges head on
While Luna knows applications programming is the field for him, returning to college has come with its challenges.
Take the beginning, for example. Luna sweated re-enrolling part time at San Jac in 2019.
“I wasn’t sure at my age whether I could keep up and maintain the schoolwork,” he said. “What if I get back there and can’t do it? What if it’s too much?”
Although he has built three home computer systems, navigating online learning when San Jac moved to altered operations proved challenging.
“It was tough at first,” Luna said. “I’m very much a visual learner. I can sit in the classroom and absorb the material. Having to sit down and learn it myself and not see the instructor do it, it takes more effort.”
Working roughly eight 24-hour shifts at the fire department each month, he gets three to four periods of five days off, so he spends that extra time focusing on his coursework.
“The older I get, the harder it is to retain information,” he said. “I have to review more than I did in my 20s.”
Work and school aside, he also helps care for his mom, whose dementia surfaced after her husband passed away two years ago.
“The cracks started to show after my dad was gone,” Luna said. “[My mom] was worse off than I thought she was…. He wasn’t there to keep her motivated to take care of herself.”
While she still lives alone, Luna checks on her often since she lives between the fire station and his house. His parents took care of him as a kid, so he doesn’t want “to shirk that responsibility.”
Achieving a lifelong goal
Being an older student has its advantages too. Luna cracks a smile when other students mistake him for the instructor in face-to-face classes, and with graying hair, he worries less about what others think.
“Because I’m older, I guess, I’m the one who’ll ask the professors the tough questions,” he said.
He’s even had the courage to question grades on projects and respectfully offer logical reasons for his stance.
Navigating college as an older student while working full time and caring for his mom has honed his time management skills and solidified his goals. Next year, he will complete his associate degree, and then he’s on to Step 2: a bachelor’s degree in computer programming from UH.
The dream started with unboxing the TI-99/4A. No matter how many years have passed, Luna is finally fulfilling a lifelong goal. The best advice he can offer other older students is to face their fears. Don’t be intimidated.
“It’s never too late to learn something new,” he said.
Editor's Note: Shortly before this story went to print, Walter Luna tragically passed away. A seasoned firefighter and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Luna is remembered by his San Jac professors and classmates as an enthusiastic learner always willing to lend a helping hand to others. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and are proud to help share his story.