Unsung Santa Cruz: D.J. Nolten and his drive to teach

Man standing in front of sign saying "Diamond Technology Institute"
(Orion Duran)

DJ Nolten, a well-known educator in the Pajaro Valley School District, has led a colorful life filled with diverse experiences. From his teenage years in a punk band to collaborating with Steve Jobs, his journey is truly remarkable. Despite his achievements, DJ values living in the present and sharing his wisdom with students. As a substitute teacher, he imparts valuable lessons, whether in kindergarten classes or computer classes at a local jail. DJ’s story exemplifies the power of embracing change and finding fulfillment in the present moment.

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: Lookout’s high school journalism challenge invited students to write a profile of a local unsung hero who is making a positive difference in our community, inspired by our popular “Unsung Santa Cruz” series. Our editing team read and reviewed the submissions, publishing the top ten stories. The top three authors are awarded a $500 scholarship.

There are momentous events that can change the whole course of your life. Sometimes there is no way to know what they are, or how to expect them. A well-known teacher throughout the Pajaro Valley School District has been through numerous jobs, countries, colleges and beliefs. For high schoolers, in the years when ever-changing circumstances and social standing can be a somewhat overwhelming subject, Glenn Nolten, known to most as “DJ,” is a perfect mentor to these students.

Glenn Dunki Jacobs Nolten, 72, is originally from Indonesia, and immigrated to California at age 12. DJ is currently an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and an associate instructor at Cabrillo Community College. But most of his college students, and the students of the Pajaro Valley School District who are lucky enough to experience a sub day with DJ, probably don’t know the full story of his life.

DJ’s life is a very colorful and interesting one. He definitely has done more than most people, from wanting to be famous, to having a punk band when he was a teen, to starting a computer hardware/software business, serving in the Vietnam War, and even collaborating with Steve Jobs. DJ’s life is something that could be admired for extended periods of time.

There is more than enough to fit in an article about just a portion of his life, but DJ is a teacher and someone who, rather than appreciating titles or fame, appreciates life at the moment it happens. “Life will change, the people you know now may not be there 40 years from now,” he says, “but if we worry about that, then we forget to actually live right now.” He appreciates being a teacher who can collaborate with a new generation of ideas, and pass down some of what he has learned in his life to them.

DJ’s teaching is not limited to a regular classroom – he has taught from glitter-covered kindergarten classes that smell of Elmer’s glue to leading computer classes at a local jail. The classes might be drastically different, but the principles he teaches remain the same.

When he’s at the kindergarten he might be teaching the students, but it’s a place where you can find out what is important. Just simple activities, like coloring in coloring books, or building block towers and pretending they are anything other than toy blocks. These sorts of activities where you don’t have to think about anything else other than the edge of your imagination, DJ says, are helpful to anyone. As he puts it: “Those are the simple things that will get us through the tough things.”

The most recent employment DJ has had in a full-time teaching position was at a Buddhist university. He converted to Buddhism after seeing the Vietnam War in full effect, and it has been a big part of his life since. With such firm values, you’d never guess the amount of change he has gone through in life.

DJ went to school to be an international lawyer, but soon changed and went on to start his own software company, learning computer programming on his own. He has gone through so many professions and excelled in them all. His story shows youth that you aren’t stuck on one path, you can change, and you can grow. “The best advice I can give you is enjoy what you are doing now,” he says, “because this will never happen again.”

A student from Diamond Technology Institute, Kiyoshi Arceo, has had DJ as a substitute teacher on many occasions. When asked about DJ, Kiyoshi mentioned that “I always like it when he is there.” It is a mutual feeling held by the class and most of the classes DJ teaches.

We can see that every person in our community has something to offer: a lawyer, a business owner, and also just your substitute teacher.

“Every morning I wake up I say, OK, I’ve got another day,” DJ says. “I’ve got another day so I’m OK with myself, I’m not going to do anything, or I’ll try not to do anything silly or stupid, but human nature, we end up doing something.”