Maria Pineda is graduating 30 years after she first set foot in a University of Texas at Austin classroom.
She and her husband came to the university, sight unseen, in 1978, after earning associate’s degrees from a Laredo junior college. They were both majoring in business and were eager to start classes.
Plans soon changed, however, when Pineda became pregnant and withdrew from classes before completing her first semester. She started working full-time at a bank, becoming an expert in international transactions and accounts. But despite her talents, she found it difficult to advance.
“I kept training these kids with degrees in music, geologyjust about everything,” Pineda recalls. “But then they would get a promotion instead of me, because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.”
In 1992, seeking to reconnect with higher education, Pineda joined the university as an employee, and worked her way up to a senior administrative associate in the Department of Germanic Studies, where she continues to work today. She was thrilled to return to campus and be part of the university’s mission.
“I feel like my job is to take care of the behind-the-scenes work, so that our starsthe faculty and studentscan really shine,” Pineda says. “I’m very proud of what I do.”
Professor John Hoberman, chairman of Germanic Studies, says Pineda’s work ethic is inspiring and indispensable to the department.
“The completion of her bachelor’s degree during her long period of employment at UT is one more example of Ms. Pineda’s commitment to making the most out of every opportunity life gives her,” Hoberman says.
Pineda’s philosophy, as a mother and a staff member, was to tend to the needs of others before thinking of herself, and she did so happily. But in 2000, when the university started offering staff members free tuition for one course per semester, Pineda decided to do something for herself. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for, though it wouldn’t be easy.
She enrolled in one class per semesterbut occasionally a busy period at work meant she had to drop the class or take a night class instead. Pineda was also intimidated by the kids half her age who seemed to have all the answers, or at least remembered their high-school algebra, a subject she had not studied in years. Sometimes juggling work, family and school became too much. Pineda was hospitalized for exhaustion two or three times.
But she persevered, hired tutors, worked with her advisers and fed off the energy of her classmates. Pineda relished the chance to learn from renowned faculty and guest speakers. She proudly recalls interviewing entrepreneur and Bookstop founder Gary Hoover for a class project.
“I thought ‘How could a person like me meet someone like him?'” Pineda says. “But going to school here gave me that chance.”
Now, at the age of 50, after seeing two of her three her children graduate from the university and go on to graduate school, after the birth of her first grandchild and after many long, homework-filled nights and weekends, Pineda is graduating with a degree in management.
She won’t be heading to Wall Street anytime soon, though. For now, Pineda looks forward to working in her backyard, playing the accordion and volunteering with the Hispanic Faculty/Staff Associationhobbies that have taken a backseat over the years to final exams and group projects.
“I’ve worked so hard that even if I didn’t earn a degree, I’d feel good about myself,” Pineda says. “But this degree to me is freedom. I know I could apply for all those jobs out there that require a degree, that weren’t even a possibility before.”