“I’m Justine Bateman. I’m 48. I’m a college junior at UCLA.”
So reads the header on Justine Bateman’s Tumblr page (titled “College Life”), where for the last three years the former Family Ties star has been chronicling what it’s like to not only go to college later in life, but to go to college for something really, really hard. In 2016, Bateman will graduate with a degree in digital management and computer science, having slogged through classes in everything from Java to C++ to CS111. Besides being an inspiration to other women (or men) who are opting for a higher-education degree at a time when most people are starting to dream about retirement or send their own kids off to college, College Life also provides a voice and platform for women whose stories are featured in the Smarty Pants Women section.
“Nobody really knows the magnitude of what you’re doing,” Bateman says one afternoon when I meet her at an outdoor patio on the UCLA campus. She’s wearing a Bruins baseball cap and big hoop earrings and, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t look all that different from her Mallory Keaton days. Nor does she look that different from the swarms of millennials who are marching off to class or studying at nearby tables. Some of them are her friends, and at one point she waves an enthusiastic “Hey! Nice to see you!” to an Asian guy in a backpack who’s walking by.
“I started thinking about all the other older people who are also going to school like me and I just wanted to say, ‘Let’s hear your story,'” she says. “I want you to have a moment on the stage to tell everyone what you had to overcome to get here, how’d you get here, why did you decide to start this, what you want to do on the backside of this? And I find it really moving.”
As for Bateman’s own story, it hasn’t been easy. She had to take the SATs at a posh L.A. high school where “the other students were very suspicious of me. They thought I was a narc or something.” She’s sobbed in her car after getting exams back–“I would hold it together until I got to the parking structure and then just lose it.” And she suffered through college job fairs where “the guy behind me has got like a 4.0 in all his computer science classes and the person in front of me already interned at Facebook last year and is a senior–I hate the job fair.”
Then there are the daily challenges of being a wife and mother (she has two school-aged children) who’s taking a full load of college courses and spends every weekday on campus, whether she has classes or not, in order to commit to school like a job.
So how’d she get here? Why was her “post-fame” move, as she calls it, a CS degree? (“My friends joke, that’s your exit strategy?” she says, laughing.) And as someone who starred on one of the biggest and most beloved TV show of the ‘80s, does she really need to work? I want answers. And for the next two hours, she provides them.
Bateman both loves to work (“my brain needs something to chew on”) and says she needs to. While Family Ties was a TV juggernaut, it was on decades ago, and “the more times it’s on, the less money you get,” Bateman says. “It’s absolutely diminishing payout. I can send you one of my (residuals) checks if you want. It’s for 25 cents.”
After the show went off the air, the two-time Emmy-nominated Bateman kept acting, but says she became less interested in the roles she was offered. Meanwhile, she was interested in technology and has always been an early adopter–she joined Tumblr back when to join Tumblr meant “you followed David Karp and all the (Tumblr) employees and they followed you–it was a pretty small group.” And so in 2007 she started a digital production company and started writing and producing content. But when she tried to make deals with entertainment companies and brands, she got nowhere fast.
“I started putting together long-form projects, say, 22 minutes for a sitcom and 42 minutes or something like that for an hour-long show. I didn’t feel like it was groundbreaking, nor would anyone think it was groundbreaking now, but at the time people reacted like it was.
“The concept that my partners and I had was to film regular shows for strictly Internet distribution. We didn’t want to use the Internet as a place where you put the outtakes of your show. And we wanted to do it with brands; take a brand and incorporate them organically into the show so that the brand’s a character.
“I kept hearing, ‘You’re four years ahead,’ which I didn’t understand because all the technology was there. I had the whole plan. I had all the people who could do these things with me. All I needed was the check. So I just bottomed out on it and thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll go the tech route.’”
Bateman was a good student in high school (she was tutored on the set and, when she wasn’t filming, attended Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills), but never went to college because of her Family Ties commitment.
“I didn’t understand that I couldn’t just leave and become sort of a semi-regular. I had to be sat down by the line producer, Carol Himes, in my dressing room and told, ‘I hear you’re thinking about going to college.’ And I said, ‘Thinking about it? Half the writing staff wrote me the recommendations for colleges! And she goes, ‘Well, honey, you can’t go. You’re under contract to Paramount Studios.’ I was like, ‘Can’t I just do some of the episodes now?’”
The adjustment to starting UCLA as a firmly established adult was brutal, she says.
“That first CS class I took, I felt like I was drowning. It’s like being taught how to swim by being thrown off deck. The continual self-talk that I have had with myself while I’ve been here is, pull yourself together and get this done,” she says. “So I asked one of the TAs if I could hire him as a tutor, because the TAs are incredibly generous with their time, but I wanted more time than I knew any of the TAs could afford to give me.”
“He spent hours and hours and hours with me. Because I just thought, “What do you do in a situation like this? You fucking get on it. You do whatever it takes to get the information learned. And that’s what I did that first year.
“With computer science, I had to go through that uncomfortable process of my brain establishing a hash table, if you will–the coders will get that–for this new information, because I didn’t have one. So I had to establish a brand-new file system from scratch.”
When I ask Bateman about how she juggles her school work with her family, it’s the first time that she doesn’t launch immediately into an answer. She’s quiet for a few moments, considering her answer.
“I don’t know how great I am at that,” she says, frowning, before she repeats the statement. “I don’t know how great I am at that.”
She pauses again.
“Well. Honestly, everybody gets a short shrift. Everybody does. I’ve only got 24 hours in a day, so I don’t study as much as I would like to. I don’t give my kids the attention that I think they deserve. I don’t give my husband the amount of attention that I think he deserves. I don’t think I attend to the responsibilities like the house and insurance and paying the bills and all that kind of stuff that it deserves.
“But you know what? Fuck it. There’s no way I’m not doing this. When you said, ‘Why do you have to work?’ or however you phrased the question, I have to because I have to. This is my life. There are things I want to do. I see this incredible opportunity for entertainment to be using technology. I just look at where technology’s going and what it’s doing, and to not want to be a part of that and get on that treadmill… Honestly, I would just want to die. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t jump in that.”
As for how she logistically handles all of her worlds, she says: “When I first started school I found that when I would try to give my kids attention at the same time I was doing my school work, it just drove me mad. So I try to compartmentalize it more so that when I’m giving them attention, I really am.”
Five minutes of solid attention is better than 30 minutes of distracted, partial attention while she’s trying to study. “They’re going to feel weird. I’m going to be frustrated. So it’s better if I just say, ‘No. I’ve got to study right now,’ and then give them five or 10 minutes of solid attention after that.”
After graduating, Bateman’s plan is to work in a position (or create her own company) that’s bringing technology and entertainment together in a way that expands into augmented reality and holographic delivery of content. “That just looks into the future at the way we’re going to consume content,” she says.
“I’m really excited about being somebody who can work with the money people and the marketing people and the management and the hardware engineers and really be somebody who knows how to speak all those languages. But who also knows how to speak to talent agencies and people like that, because those are two very different worlds where different things are important.
“I’d like to get an MBA, but I’ll be 50 when I graduate and I just want to get at it. If I get out there and realize, oh, I really need an MBA to hold the positions I want to hold, then I’ll come back and do it. But, you know, I want to get in there.”