Rene Neira has been working on his college degree since the 1950s. Work and family took priority, so Neira enrolled in classes on and off. This year, his decades of hard work paid off.
"In the 50s, he started school, then soon fell in love and started a family," Neira's granddaughter Melanie Salazar told The Uplift. "Then he went back in the 80s, the 90s, the early 2000s, and then it just so happened that he went back to school again at the same time that I was starting."
In 2016, when Neira was 82 years old, he enrolled at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas — the same school where his granddaughter was starting as a freshman.
The two earned their associate's degree at the same time, then they enrolled at the same school again: this time, the University of Texas San Antonio.
"We never had classes together, but there were times we would meet up for lunch in the cafeteria, or sometimes we would be studying side-by-side in the library," Salazar said.
She was a communications major and Neira was an economics major, but the two would sometimes cross paths on campus. To Salazar, he was just a grandpa — but to other students, he was a presence on campus. "From what has been shared with me, he always had something to say, especially if his professors had different opinions than him," Salazar said. "And there were often times a professor would be talking about the past and say, 'Hey Rene, you lived through that time period, tell us more about what you remember during that time."
"His classmates, I think, were motivated and inspired to see him," Salazar said.
Neira's college years did come with challenges. "He has worked very hard over time, especially in recent years, with hearing loss, going through seasons of not having a car, there was a semester where he had to take a medical leave because he had a stroke, so he couldn't go back to school that semester. And then the pandemic started," said Salazar. "So there were a lot of different barriers in place that made it difficult to go back."
Neira didn't officially earn the credits needed to graduate. But his granddaughter and family advocated for him, asking the university to honor him and his hard work in some way.
A week before the graduation ceremony Neira found out the school was giving him a degree of recognition. He was able to attend graduation and cross the stage with his granddaughter, who pushed him in his wheelchair. He show school spirit by flashing the "birds up" symbol – used at UTSA Roadrunner sporting events.
"I was saying to him, 'Grandpa, you did it, we did it, college is over, you did it.' And my grandpa was kind of tired at that time and he asked, 'I did what?'" Salazar said, laughing. "But it was definitely a special moment and to be able to say, 'you did it' and that he will be able to receive his degree in the mail to have and hold, I am definitely proud of my grandpa."
Neira turned 88 years old a few days after the graduation ceremony. Salazar said it feels like a miracle that her grandfather was awarded his well-deserved diploma. "It's beautiful to see the end of a chapter," she said. "Before he dies, before he will pass, he was able to walk the stage, like he had been working towards since the 50s."
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