Virginia Nelson, 98, Cant Stop Now
by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
Coming from a Chicano family, only two things were expected of me not to get pregnant before marriage, and to get married, says Student Affairs Officer Virginia Nelson.
At 53, Nelson has far exceeded those expectations. During an emotional commencement ceremony May 14, she received her BA in Womens Studies, Phi Beta Kappa. As the ceremonys student speaker, she received a standing ovation. Im glad my parents lived to see this day, she says.
Following high school graduation in 1962, Nelson, then Maes, went to work as a secretary, while her brother came to Cal for a degree in engineering. I lived at home until I got married at 23, and never thought of going to college, she recalls.
But she found herself working at colleges, first as a secretary at Mills, then at Berkeley, where 10 years ago she joined Student Activities and Services as an administrative assistant.
In 1991 she decided it was time she went to college herself. While working full-time, she attended Las Positas Community College in Livermore nights and weekends, graduating in 1994 with highest honors.
Some classes were so hard I cried. I didnt even know how to study when I started, she recalls. I had to take statistics, and my son commented that I went all the way from first-grade arithmetic to college math in one course. I told him I didnt have any more time to waste.
Four years ago Nelson was promoted to Student Affairs Officer. Her main responsibility is advising Chicano/Latino student groups. Its been fun connecting back with my own culture, she says.
Campus colleagues encouraged Nelson to apply to Berkeley for her BA. SAS director Karen Kenney had instituted a professional educational development program for department staff that included flex time, time off, and $150 a year. That made graduation possible, says Nelson.
Since 1994, Nelson has taken one class each semester and two in the summer, assisted by Berkeleys 2/3 fee remission benefit.
Everyone in the department helped make it work for me, says Nelson. I couldnt have done it without their support.
As employees, we should be encouraged to take classes here so we can appreciate what student life is like, says Nelson. Being a student has improved my performance on the job. Its expanded my mind and Ive earned the respect of people I work with and for. Its important to me that I do well both at work and at school.
I wasnt sure I could do Berkeley-caliber work, but Ive found a respect I didnt expect, says Nelson. Ive studied in dorm rooms with students, and theyve even invited me to their parties. The re-entry program has also been a big support.
When choosing the womens studies major, I went with my heart, says Nelson. I asked (former) Vice Chancellor Francisco Hernandez for advice, and he told me that no matter what major I chose, I would learn what I needed to here.
In class Nelson often found herself called upon to give historical perspective. Students dont know what weve gone through to get where we are, she says. My grandmother didnt have the right to vote. I didnt know any women who went to college except nurses. I tell my nieces, Its so important for you to find a way to take care of yourself.
Nelsons husband was laid off after 25 years with the Oakland Tribune, so my education became important for both of us, she says.
Now that shes a Berkeley alumna, what are Nelsons plans?
First I want to sleep, rest, and reconnect with my family for a year, she says. Then Ill look into graduate programs. I cant see stopping.
For information on staff fee remission, call Pascale Roland at 642-8134 or email email@example.com.
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Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
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