Woman goes from cotton fields to college diploma

May 1, 2009

PLAINVIEW – It’s a long way from the cotton fields where Cecilia Varela Perez and her family would spend summers to the air conditioned classrooms of Wayland Baptist University.

Geographically, only a few miles separate the two in Plainview, but in Varela’s mind, it’s a world away. And in a week, she’ll accomplish a goal she’s had for years as she earns her college degree at WBU in the May 9 ceremony.

A native of Mission and a graduate of La Joya High School in South Texas, the 31-year-old Varela said those memories are still vivid.

“We would spend summers working in the fields, and that money paid for our clothes,” she said. “One summer we went to Illinois, but that didn’t really work out that well, so my dad contacted a relative in Plainview, and we started coming here in 1995.”

Varela was still in high school then and she recalls the heat of the days, with little shade except under the family’s pickup. Her parents, Cecilia and her younger siblings would crouch under the truck for shade during a short lunch break, a welcome respite for the 12-hour days in the field.

Even then, she had her eye on education, guided in large part by her father, who himself only went through first grade and knew learning would help his children open doors of opportunity for the future.

“He wanted us to do something for ourselves, and he was pushing us all along,” she said.

               During one summer in Plainview, Cecilia met her future husband Ricky, and after high school graduation and one semester at South Texas College, she moved to Plainview to marry in 1998. While Ricky worked, Cecilia worked at home as a wife and soon a mother to Ricky, Jr., born in 2000. Life was good, but she always wanted to return to the college classroom.

“That was something that I felt I had to finish, for me, for my little boy and my husband,” she said. “I never lost the hope. I always had it in my head that I needed to do something, even if I was 60.”

It took an auto accident in 2006, which injured Cecilia but spared her from great damage, to remind her of the brevity of life and the need to chase her dreams. She enrolled at Wayland that fall.

She had heard of Wayland from other friends in Plainview, but admitted her broken English made her wonder if she could handle college work. With help from a few Academic Achievement courses to shore up her reading and writing skills in English, she soon excelled. She even completed the degree in three years, attending summer courses as well.

“I’m so glad I had good professors; they helped me a lot and made me feel more comfortable,” she said. “I spoke only Spanish in high school and really only learned English when I moved to Plainview.”

Varela settled on a degree in computer science, enrolling as a business administration major with an emphasis in management information systems. Her goal is to work in the school system in the technology area and perhaps one day to teach technology to students.

The challenges she found mostly were in the logistics of working her full-time school load around her full-time job as a bus driver with First Student. Her usual routine was to drive the early morning shift, head to WBU for morning classes, head back to the bus barn to pick up the pre-kindergarten students, then back for afternoon classes before running the kids home after school. She took the occasional night class if needed as well.

Now that she’s got the bachelor’s degree behind her, she admits she’s been bitten by the education bug and isn’t ready to leave that setting. She plans on starting the master’s degree in August and possibly pursuing teaching certification in the near future as well.

She said the degree gave her not only valuable skills in computing and business but also needed social skills and the desire to serve, which she said her professors patterned. Serving as the president of the Spanish Club last year gave her a chance to put all those skills into practice.

Varela said her husband, a truck driver for Panhandle Express, and her son, now a second grader at Thunderbird, have been encouraging in her journey toward the degree.

“Sometimes he complains about school, and I tell him if I can go to school, you can do it top,” she said. “He is proud of me and that makes me proud of myself. He always tells me he’s going to go to college and play baseball someday.”

Varela is one of 116 students who will receive diplomas on Saturday, May 9, in the commencement ceremony slated for 2 p.m. in Hutcherson Center. Senior Micah Evans of Albuquerque, N.M., will present the student address, followed by a brief charge to the graduates from Wayland President Dr. Paul Armes. In addition, recognition will be given to Dr. Vaughn Ross as Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences and the highest ranking seniors in the undergraduate class.