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Virginia Nelson, ’98, Can’t Stop Now

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted June 10, 1998

“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 Women’s Studies, Phi Beta Kappa. As the ceremony’s student speaker, she received a standing ovation. “I’m 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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. “It’s 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 Berkeley’s 2/3 fee remission benefit.

“Everyone in the department helped make it work for me,” says Nelson. “I couldn’t 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. It’s expanded my mind and I’ve earned the respect of people I work with and for. It’s important to me that I do well both at work and at school.

“I wasn’t sure I could do Berkeley-caliber work, but I’ve found a respect I didn’t expect,” says Nelson. “I’ve studied in dorm rooms with students, and they’ve even invited me to their parties. The re-entry program has also been a big support.”

When choosing the women’s 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 don’t know what we’ve gone through to get where we are,” she says. “My grandmother didn’t have the right to vote. I didn’t know any women who went to college except nurses. I tell my nieces, ‘It’s so important for you to find a way to take care of yourself.’”

Nelson’s husband was laid off after 25 years with the Oakland Tribune, “so my education became important for both of us,” she says.

Now that she’s a Berkeley alumna, what are Nelson’s plans?

“First I want to sleep, rest, and reconnect with my family for a year,” she says. “Then I’ll look into graduate programs. I can’t see stopping.”

For information on staff fee remission, call Pascale Roland at 642-8134 or email

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