For the first time in more than 30 years, Colette Cimino is a college student again.

And the biggest change she sees is the technology.

“I submitted a small essay this week online, and my professor gave me feedback later that night,” Cimino said. “They didn’t have that in 1985, let me tell you.”

As a full-time employee with UF, Cimino, who works as an administrative assistant in the UF Health Cancer Center, can take up to six credit hours per semester tuition-free as part of UF’s Employee Education Program.

Anywhere between 500 and 800 full-time employees, who have worked for UF for at least six months, use the program to study at either UF or Santa Fe College each semester, said Kenya Williams, the program’s director.

Most are working toward their associates or bachelor’s degrees, but some — about 25 percent of last Fall’s participants — use the program to get their master’s degrees, Williams said. The program gets about $305,831 each year, wrote UF spokesperson John Hines in an email.

Aside from working 40 hours per week for their jobs, many of the students have families and children of their own to raise, Williams said.

“They’re juggling everything,” Williams said. “The whole balance of life — and then adding school on top of it.”

But for Cimino, 53, the program is a second chance, she said.

When she was last in school in 1985, Cimino was 21, married, pregnant and pursuing business administration at Nassau Community College in Long Island, New York.

Her plan was to deliver the baby when it was due in June, finish her degree and start a career to support her child.

But instead, her daughter, Kara, was born 2 ½ months premature.

For the first few weeks she tried to balance it all. Cimino divided her time between her part-time job at a nearby dentist’s office, college classes and the hospital wing where nurses watched over Kara.

It quickly became impossible, she said.

“Life got in the way,” Cimino said. “And I cared way more about my baby girl than making everything work at the time; she was my priority.”

From there, she and her husband divorced; she moved in 1986 with Kara to Gainesville, after Cimino’s father took a job flying the UF Health Shands Hospital helicopter.

“Try being a single parent, working full time with high-stress jobs,” she said. “As much as I would have liked finishing school, it was never really an option.” Cimino always had the idea of returning to school in the back of her mind but didn’t think of it as a possibility until her co-worker at the Cancer Center told her about UF’s Employee Education Program. Cimino realized she could transfer her credits from Nassau Community to Santa Fe and use the program to help subsidize it.

“It was a big possibility all of a sudden,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Well that would just be really stupid if I didn’t do this.’”

Now, five days into her first semester in more than three decades, Cimino said she feels proud fulfilling her long-standing personal goal. She said her only fear is having to take math again.

“Honestly, I don’t even remember much algebra or calculus, and I’m going to have to do algebra II, probably,” she said. “But it’ll be worth it.”

Omar Lopez is finishing what he started.

In 2012, during Lopez’s sophomore year at UF, he went from studying on campus to struggling to hold his family together and managing unexpected poverty.

His mother Omarya’s health declined to the point where she could no longer walk on her own. The arthritis in the 45-year-old’s back and her spinal stenosis, which causes strain on the spinal cord’s nerves, were the worst they had been since being diagnosed as a teenager.

“The thing with parents is that they’ll never say to their child, ‘I need help.’ That’s just not who they are.” Lopez, 25, said. “But I knew she was getting sick, I knew she needed me there for her.”

That’s when Lopez, then on a four-year track to getting a bachelor’s degree in political science, made one of the hardest decisions he’s ever made: putting his education on hold.

Lopez had it in mind even then he’d eventually use the program to resume his classes, so it never felt like the end of his education. Besides confiding in his closest friends, Lopez never wanted to make his withdrawal public.

“I felt shameful leaving,” he said. “My friends didn’t judge me, but I didn’t want it out there known.”

He transferred from his part-time job at the UF Housing and Residence Education help desk, where he was making only $8 to $9 hourly, to a full-time position with benefits so he could cover his mom’s expenses.

Lopez had sent his mom to their native hometown Bayamon, Puerto Rico, to rest and recover with family. Eventually, Lopez said he had to give up their home in Orlando and everything in it. They had too much of a financial strain to keep the house where they would have spent the holidays together. As Lopez worked, his younger brother Bryan lived in a friend’s home to finish out high school.

They had barely anything left, he said.

“Either you work more or you go hungry; you learn how to make hot-dog soup,” Lopez said of what his meals would entail when he fell short on money. “I had a big tub of oatmeal, and made anything you could imagine on oatmeal.”

Only when his mom returned from Bayamon, healthy again at the end of 2012, did Lopez feel the burden lift and sought to return to his studies.

Having never stopped working full-time with UF, now as a lead scientific systems developer with the UF Center for Biotechnology Research, he started classes again in Summer 2015 using the program and plans to get his associates degree by the end of this year, he said.

“It felt like a second chance,” Lopez said. “I left in such an ugly way. I was always disappointed in myself, so being able to go back and start over, even if it was only one class at a time, I feel like I am moving along.”

Contact David Hoffman at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @hoffdavid123.

Staff Writer

David Hoffman is an investigative reporter for The Alligator. A rising UF history and economics senior, the 21-year-old lives and breathes for classy Parks and Recreation references and watching live performances of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on YouTube.