It has been 65 years since Marcella Baca’s classmates graduated from high school, but remarkably this spirited 83-year-old great grandmother who lives in Atwater graduated from Merced Adult School with a high school diploma on June 5.
She was one of the speakers during the graduation ceremony at the Merced Theatre, to boot!
“The reason I didn’t finish high school is when I was 17, I was three months into my senior year, and my mother got sick,” she explained to the Times. She was in the hospital, and I had to quit school and take care of our little store and gas station. After she came home from the hospital, she needed me more because there were seven brothers and sisters. I had to take care of them, plus the store and the gas station. I would send them off to school, and then when they came home, I had to get them ready for the next day at school.”
Describing what led to her return to school so many years later, she said, “My granddaughter asked me, ‘How would you like to get your diploma?’, and I said, ‘Why, at my age?’ and she said, ‘You’re still not that old, and it’s never too late to finish high school.’ I finally told her I would register and see what I could do. I registered, and they told me I could come to Castle to Merced Adult School.”
She exclaimed, “It was a lot of work. Everybody’s excited now that I’m done!”
What was it like going back to high school in her 80s?
Baca said, “The instructor greeted me in a friendly way, and the people in the class were always there to help. I learned how to use the computer, and the Superintendent came to check on me and see how I was doing, and make sure I was doing okay.”
When asked how things had changed since she went to school, she said, “The curriculum was very interesting. I enjoyed it. There was a lot to do. When I was in high school, there were no computers and we just used textbooks and now, everything you need is there.”
Baca took the required classes from September 2018 to March 2019 and passed with flying colors.
What will she do with her high school diploma?
“Now that I achieved it, I was thinking of getting involved in child development,” She responded. “I took one class in that subject, and I could take more classes at Merced College. There’s a day care behind us, Fruitland, and I’ll check with them and see what they tell me. Maybe they’ll accept me.”
When the Times interviewed Baca’s teacher,Val Sobrevilla, Instructor at the school’s Atwater Castle Lab, he explained, “We have a learning lab at the Atwater site of Merced Adult School at former Castle Air Force Base where you set your own schedule, and the classes are dictated as to what is needed. She needed senior classes like Econ, Government, and Science, and she took a Health class and Early Childhood Development class for electives.
“High school technically takes four years. When people embark on their classes, I tell them a high school diploma is work, but I will try to make it as fun as possible. Fortunately, 95 percent of the people who want a high school diploma come in motivated to work because they want it done. They’re pretty focused, for the most part.”
He commented, “It’s an interesting place. We have three classrooms available with computers in them. If a student wants a quieter place, there is a side room. Marcella always sat in the main room so she could ask in case she had a question.”
Describing Baca as a student, Sobrevilla said, “She needed about 50 credits, and she took all the classes she needed to finish. She always came in motivated and excited and she did all her work on the computer program we have, and she did great. My concern was her experience with computers, but she told me she could push buttons, and I said, ‘That will work.’ Within the first couple days, she was able to log in and out without assistance, and once she got the hang of the program and how it works she was off and running. If she needed help, I would point her in the right direction.”
He continued, “She came to class every day, prepared and ready to work. Even on the days she was struggling, she put on a positive attitude and with that, there is pretty much nothing you can’t do.
“She’s very sharp. For her age, she’s very aware of what is going on. Whatever she didn’t understand, she would ask questions about it. The minimum passing score is 70 percent, but for Marcella, that was not enough. She would push herself. She would put in four or five hours a day here, and then continue to work when she went home. Normally, we don’t force anyone to do homework because our adult students usually have family and things to do at home. Marcella had the time and the energy to do it, so I wasn’t going to stop her. So I got out of the way and let her go.
“She had a lot of family support. Her granddaughter talked her into it, and her husband also got on board and was happy to see that she was getting through it well. He would do dishes and make meals so she could get back to doing school work.
“She got along great with everyone in class. There were 35 to 40 students on the roster, but anywhere from eight to 15 showed up on any given day because they all had different schedules. Most of the students were between 18-years-old and their late 50s. Marcella was definitely the oldest, but she was just like any other student in here.
“We had a lot of fun when she was here. I like to have some potlucks and movie days so everyone gets to know each other and interacts. We started in late September, and in October, we had our annual Halloween costume contest and potluck. She showed up in a Minnie Mouse costume. She looked adorable, and she won the contest. She also made a potluck dish and brownies, so we all won.”