Rudy Nevarez learned how to march until his feet hurt when he left school for the Navy at age 16. But he's waited a whole lifetime to do the kind of marching he'll do at the University of Washington Tacoma's Commencement ceremony on Friday, June 8.
At 78, Nevarez is the UW Tacoma Milgard School of Business' oldest graduate and, soon he will complete a lifelong dream of earning a four-year college degree. His sister and niece from Texas, along with his wife, Pat, will attend Commencement ceremonies to help celebrate Rudy's success. They say they'll be the ones cheering loudest. He's the first in his family to graduate from college.
Seeking opportunity and an escape from the racial discrimination prevalent in his home town, El Paso, Texas, Nevarez left school in ninth grade and joined the U.S. Navy. He hadn't returned to a school classroom until he enrolled at Olympic College in his early 70s.
Nevarez started at UW Tacoma's Milgard School of Business fall quarter 2005, after an economics professor at Olympic College highly recommended UWT.
"I decided I might as well go for it and see if I could do it. It takes an hour to drive from my home in Bremerton to UWT. The first day, I nearly made a U-turn when I reached the Narrows Bridge," Nevarez said.
But he crossed the bridge.
"I was aware that my classes would be challenging, and I wondered whether I could understand the material and make the grade. To be honest, I was scared. But I've always wanted a four-year degree. When I saw that I had a chance, I decided I must start and find out if I can make it. I could say I tried," he said.
He said he's never been so astonished as when he discovered how much he didn't know. Getting a four-year degree has enriched his understanding of the world in ways he couldn't previously imagine.
"I can't speak highly enough about UWT," he said.
He remembers reporting for his first day of classes in pressed trousers and a shirt.
"I decided the students and professors would have to accept me for who I am," he said.
But they did more than accept him. They could tell he was genuinely interested in young people's perspectives. And they were interested in his. UWT students often learn by taking on group projects, and Nevarez became a popular team member. Students always invited him to study sessions after class. One group chose to go with his idea for a research topic, Ho Chi Minh. During the Vietnam War he had served on an ammunition ship supplying the U.S. troops.
"The students hadn't been born yet when the Vietnam War was going on. They learned a lot about it working on our presentation, he said.
They got a good grade on it too.
"I was never treated as the old guy," he says. "It was refreshing to see the younger generation's point of view. I have absolutely no problem passing the torch on to this generation," Nevarez said.
He knew the students had really accepted him when one asked, "How about going partying with us?"
He told them, "I've got a long drive home, so I'll shoot the breeze with you over a soft drink at The Swiss."
Nevarez, who spent 31 years in active duty with the Navy and 20 more years working for the Department of Defense, retiring in 1998, said he may look for a new gig and work a few more years. He's got a lot of energy, said Pat. They've have been married for 23 years, and they're looking forward to 23 more together.
Nevarez put in many long days and nights studying to complete his bachelor's degree. He thanks wife, Pat, for urging him on and not complaining about missed dinners and nights out. Quizzing him on test materials, she often learned alongside him, and said, "It took a lot of guts for him to walk into a classroom in his 70s. I don't know how he did it. I just know it's something he's wanted to do for a long time."