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UC Berkeley Press Release

68-year-old Ph.D. candidate beats the odds

– For 68-year-old Ananda Sattwa, the long and rocky journey from Kingston, Jamaica, to the University of California, Berkeley, will crest this Friday (May 18) as she walks across the stage at the Department of Ethnic Studies' graduation ceremony.

Ananda Sattwa
Ananda Sattwa (Steve McConnell / NewsCenter photo)

That's when her eldest son, African American historian and anthropologist Robin D. G. Kelley, will place a doctoral hood over his mother's long mane of wavy silver hair. The Ph.D. candidate has yet to complete her dissertation. However, with her son - a sought-after scholar - delivering the keynote address, her family felt the time was right to honor the achievements of the woman who made sacrifice after sacrifice so they might pursue their dreams.

After all, Sattwa was once a high school dropout who managed to put four children through college, then embarked on her own academic career while caring for a mother with Alzheimer's disease.

"I do find it tragic that my mother had to wait so long to complete her undergraduate and graduate work," said Kelley, a history professor at the University of Southern California and the author of numerous publications, including "Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination," "White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America" and "Yo Mama's Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America."

"As a black woman and an immigrant, she had many strikes against her," Kelley said. "I can only imagine the number of outstanding books my mom might have written had she gotten her college and postgraduate degrees in her late 20s or early 30s. But her sacrifices made it possible for my siblings and me to do what we're doing now."

For her part, Sattwa feels indebted to UC Berkeley: "I love the university, especially the ethnic studies department," Sattwa said. "I am also most grateful for the opportunities in this country."

Sattwa was born Audin Modah Reid in Jamaica, the only child of Carmen Rodrigues. She was raised by her mother, who was a telephone operator, and her grandmother until she came to Queens, New York, on Christmas Eve 1949 to live with her grandmother's sister. She was strongly discouraged from speaking the lyrical West Indian patois.

"My family would scold me if I talked Jamaican," she said in her soft, mid-Atlantic accent.

Though she excelled at history and English, she said math and science fell by the wayside. Eventually, she dropped out of Andrew Jackson High School. She married in 1959, and within the next nine years bore three children - two sons and a daughter.

In 1969, when Sattwa was 30, she and her husband divorced, and she supported her children with her mother's help. While she encouraged them to do well at school so they could go to college, she worried about her own lack of education. Deep down, she felt there was an academic inside her, fighting to get out.

"Our house overflowed with books - Grolier encyclopedias, TIME Life science books, lots of literature and history," Kelley later wrote in "Lessons from a Sunset," an essay on his mother.

In 1971, a friend wrote to Sattwa and encouraged her to get a more affordable education in California, so Sattwa packed up her children and moved out West. She remarried, and the family moved to Pasadena. Another daughter was born.

As the stresses of life took their toll on her second marriage, she found herself raising her kids alone, again. She took jobs as a childcare provider and a teacher at summer camps. For a while, she was a manager for Baskin-Robbins. Another time, she had her own bakery. By now, her children were doing well at school and she was confident they would go on to college, so her thoughts returned to her own education.

In 1979, as she inquired about how to get her high school diploma, a counselor encouraged her to attend Pasadena City College, where she earned her GED and was then admitted as a regular student. She made the dean's list the first year.

Sattwa married again and, once more, found it difficult to juggle education, wifehood and motherhood. She quit college to go back to work. Soon, her third marriage disintegrated, and she was ready for a change. In 1991, she moved to Oakland to help her oldest daughter with her children. Meanwhile, her mother in New York had developed Alzheimer's disease, so Sattwa flew her mother out West to take care of her, too.

She applied to UC Berkeley in 1997, when she was 58. By then, her eldest son, Robin, was a highly respected history and African American studies professor at New York University. At first, Sattwa was reluctant to ask him for a letter of recommendation, but her friends and family encouraged her to do so.

UC Berkeley was the only university she applied to, and she got in right away, but had to wait a year to start because of financial and other complications. She adapted easily to the campus. Some students mistook her for a professor because of her age, but overall, she felt at home. "I never felt out of place. People welcomed me and accepted me," she said.

She financed her undergraduate and graduate education through grants, loans and scholarships. "I did whatever I could," said Sattwa, who worked as a graduate student instructor in several classes.

She started out as an English major, but soon found herself drawn to religious studies, particularly as she got involved with the Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide religious organization founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. She practiced yoga and changed her name to Ananda, which means "bliss," and Sattwa, which means "goodness and truth," in Sanskrit.

In 1999, she took some cross-listed classes on Native American spirituality and philosophy, and became fascinated with Native American history and "colonial mishaps." She graduated as a double major in religious studies and ethnic studies in 2001.

In graduate school at UC Berkeley, she remained on the Native American studies path, focusing on the Creek and Cherokee Indians. That led her to research her own Native American roots and the history of people of mixed African and Native American ancestry.

When it came time for the Department of Ethnic Studies to find a speaker for its 2007 graduation ceremony, the department inquired about Sattwa's son, Kelley, whom it had previously attempted to bring to UC Berkeley as a speaker. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Sattwa to walk the stage and be hooded by her son.

Sattwa is looking forward to basking in the glow of her family at Friday's graduation ceremony. As for her future, after nearly a decade at UC Berkeley, Sattwa wants to complete her thesis - "The Chahta Muskoghe Legend and The Colonial Miscreation of the Creeks, From 1870 to the Present" - and then give back to the campus that gave her a shot at academic success. She said she'd like to inspire other non-traditional students, perhaps through teaching.

"My love is still researching and writing, but I've come to love working with students," Sattwa said. "I could really make a difference to them."

As for Kelley, his "Lessons from a Sunset" essay explains why he cannot wait to place the academic hood over his mother's head.

"I am who I am because of my mother. She did not need a high school diploma or a husband or a switch to raise a black male intellectual committed to feminism, social justice, poetry, love and something even more visionary than socialism," he wrote. "She introduced me to more profound ideas than all my professors and comrades combined."