Sten Knutsen remembers being wowed by Rutgers University during a high school field trip he took in the late ’80s.
“In one of the engineering buildings on a tour of Busch Campus, they showed us this piece of tile from the space shuttle that was glowing red in the middle, and it was just the coolest thing,” he said.
The math whiz was filled with curiosity about out how things worked. But his fascination with electrical and mechanical engineering ended up taking a backseat to his faith. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Knutsen followed the advice of church elders and skipped college to pursue a personal ministry.
Nearly 30 years later, Knutsen, 47, is about to graduate from Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences with three majors – in linguistics, computer science and cognitive science.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” said the Long Valley resident of his circuitous route to college. “My whole life the mechanisms were in place to prevent this from happening. But I broke out of it and made it happen. It’s an accomplishment that is meaningful.”
For years Knutsen was content with the answers his religion offered to his many questions. He spread his church’s message door-to-door, worked as an operator for Bell Atlantic – now Verizon Communications – married a fellow church member and helped raise her two children.
But as he approached 40, Knutsen became increasingly interested in questions raised by science – especially in the field of cognitive science – questions that his religious teachings did not cover. Soon it felt like his reliable job with good benefits was an albatross, and his decision to forgo higher education was a mistake.
“I thought ‘I’m still not that old. I’ve got to get my butt in school,’” he said. “I probably always was this person, but I pushed it down for a long time.”
Knutsen investigated his company’s tuition assistance plan and transferred from his North Jersey office to South Plainfield so he could be close to the New Brunswick campus. In the fall of 2011, he enrolled in his first class: “Expository Writing.”
He worked by day, studied at night. Then Hurricane Sandy hit. With downed phone cables crisscrossing the state, it was all hands on deck at Verizon. Knutsen’s days started at 4 a.m. and didn’t end until 10 p.m., a schedule that almost kept him from class. But a flexible employer allowed him to make it to classes while working an otherwise full shift repairing fiber optics seven days a week. That stressful experience solidified what was most important to him: becoming a full-time student.
“I figured if I could do that, I’m not sure what I can’t do,” he said.
So in 2013 Knutsen left his steady job to focus on linguistics full time at the behest of his linguistics professor Jane Grimshaw who told him he was an outstanding student and up for the challenges that would come with a decision of this magnitude.
“I was afraid that if he didn’t seize this opportunity he would always regret it, and if he felt that way too it was entirely reasonable for him to turn his life upside down and start studying full time,” said Grimshaw. “I run into Sten regularly at lectures and other events and I often ask him if he has any regrets. The answers range from ‘none’ to ‘never’ ‘no’ and ‘nope’.”
Unlike his peers who are half his age, Knutsen said he doesn’t experience the same pressure or fear of failure as a student because this is his second act and an unplanned one at that. That unfettered approach allows Knutsen, who is defending his senior thesis in human language processing, to revel in the research process.
“Designing the experiment, getting data from participants, trying to analyze it,” he said. “When you’re done, hopefully you’re going to know one more detail that no one ever knew before.”
As his thirst for knowledge grew so did his fields of study. Knutsen added computer science as a major in 2014, followed by cognitive science. Soon he’ll have all three undergraduate degrees in hand. So how does he plan to use them?
“At this point I have no goal other than going to graduate school and doing cool things I never thought possible,” said Knutsen, has been accepted to Rutgers’ doctoral program in cognitive psychology and hopes to remain in academia. “My motivation wasn’t getting a job. It was figuring stuff out. The cool thing about cognitive science is it’s a relatively new field and there is a lot of stuff to figure out.”
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