Traditionally it is the child who follows in the parent’s footsteps. In Wanda Ornelas’ case, she’s the one following her son Maurice’s path as a student at Bridgewater State University.
Maurice graduated from Bridgewater in 2009 and now it’s his mother’s turn to be a Bear.
In May, the 60-something mother of three will collect her bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
“I’m looking to re-invent myself,” Wanda said. “In retirement many of us still want to learn, to discover. Education isn’t only about getting a degree, it’s about discovery as well.”
The last time Wanda was a student was in 1972. A Puerto Rican native, at 16-years-old she attended a local university where she studied French.
In the intervening years, she got married and started a family. Her husband was in the Army and the family traveled the world, moving from one Army base to another.
She continued to study languages, learning not only French, but German, Italian and Portuguese.
Eventually the family settled first in Rhode Island, then Massachusetts.
Wanda’s ability to speak multiple languages served her well. She gained employment through the Rhode Island Department of Public Health, where she worked as an epidemiologist, helping with the prevention of venereal diseases.
During her career she was invited to work as a supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Health’s southeast region, where she stayed for 16 years.
Today she is at BSU looking to expand her horizons and share her life experiences with younger students.
“From 1972 to 2019 it’s a different world. We had no internet or cellphones back then. We used to go to the library, in fact I still have my library card,” she said. “I’m a curious person, I always want to learn more. I don’t want to just stay home and retire,”
Most college students she encounters are 25-years-old and younger, but Wanda said older students add another layer to the classroom.
“We should be called ambassadors of education. we are promoting the fact that there is no ‘right’ age to be a student,” she said. “We have lived life and bring all of our experiences to share with this younger generation.”
She is already making an impact.
Early on, upon entering a classroom Wanda found most students had their heads down, focused on their cell phones. That didn’t sit well with her and it became her mission to get their faces up and engaged.
“I was the first one to say, ‘Hi, how are you today?’” she said. “Now they say the same to me as soon as I enter the room. I’m teaching them. That’s the main thing. We are always teaching each other, always learning.”
Wanda said her entire BSU experience – from the financial aid she received to the supportive professors and students – has been positive.
“Bridgewater is wonderful, the professors are incredible,” she said. “It’s been an interesting ride for me. Being here at BSU, this is learning for me. I feel like Christopher Columbus, suddenly I’m discovering a new world.”
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