Overcoming spirit pursues dreams of education

Professor indulges task to support students receiving higher education

By Yesenia Malara, Staff Writer

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Angelina Villafane remembers walking with her two kids passing by UC Berkeley not knowing the prestige it held, but only knowing that she wanted to attend Cal after she was done with community college.

Villafane, adjunct La Raza studies professor at Contra Costa College, would have never thought she would have the opportunity to attend college considering the challenging path she had to overcome just to attend college.

“There were many counselors who discouraged me from applying to that college. They told me I should apply to a state college instead, but I said no. I knew I wanted to go there, so I applied regardless,” she said.

For Villafane, getting there wasn’t always an easy process, especially because she stopped going to school for almost 14 years after graduating from high school.

She lived in the Bronx in New York City and was raised by a big Puerto Rican family. Although her family members encouraged education, they never gave her the support she needed because they were always working and taking care of the children. So that left Villafane to advocate for herself at a young age.

“It was difficult getting by in school. I needed a parent or guardian to enroll me in school, but because no one did it for me I had to sneak into schools.”

It wasn’t until one of her high school counselors saw potential in her that she was placed on a college path. If it weren’t for that counselor, the idea of college would have never been possible for her, she said.

Villafane’s high school counselor made sure she placed her in college prep classes so she would have the required classes to get into college.

In 1978 Villafane graduated from high school and was accepted into a college, but was unable to attend because she had no money to pay for it.

“How was I supposed to attend college if I didn’t have any money?”

Villafane’s education was stopped because she had no choice but to work. She also had an early marriage at age 19 in 1978 and had two children. In 1984 Villafane got a divorce and became a single mother.

She later made her life in Berkeley with her kids.

“I made it from New York to Berkeley somehow. It was hard, especially being a single mother,” Villafane said. “Opportunities were shut down for me due to my status as a single mother, but eventually I got a steady job as a baker which helped me support myself and my kids.”

Through the years, she always had it in the back of her mind to go back to school to complete her education despite her circumstances, she said.

She decided to attend Berkeley City College to restart her education.

During the mornings she would work 40 hours a week, and at night she would attend school, she said.

Villafane said she wanted to attend UC Berkeley despite counselors discouraging her from applying, but she worked hard for her goals regardless of what they told her.

In 1996 Villafane graduated from Berkeley City College, and was accepted into UC Berkeley as a transfer student with a 4.0 GPA.

Although Villafane attended the college she wanted, her transition wasn’t the easiest because she felt intimidated by the university and students.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged, so I was pretty quiet until I found my home in the ethnic studies department.”

She met Native American studies Professor Patricia Hilden, who inspired her to consider a career in teaching.

Hilden is currently a retired professor from UC Berkeley, but continues teaching as an emerita professor there.

Hilden said that it was her first semester teaching at UC Berkeley when she met Villafane.

“Angelina made an effort to come to my office hours so we could discuss different matters,” she said. “It was clear to me that she was a remarkable student with the ability to connect and willingness to help others, so I encouraged her to apply to graduate school.”

Villafane said she remembers thinking she didn’t belong in grad school.

“I thought the graduate program was for the gifted and intelligent students,” she said. “I could never think of myself as being one of them.”

With the help and guidance of Hilden, Villafane applied to graduate school and was accepted.

She graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies in 1998 and is now  a Ph.D. candidate in the comparative ethnic studies department at Cal.

Despite graduating at nearly the age of 40, Villafane was able to attend college and obtain a degree.

She is currently teaching the  Contemporary Chicano/Latino Literature course at CCC.

She said she feels blessed for the opportunity she got to continue her education and now wants to use her experiences to support and validate her students

Student Grizel Gutierrez, a psychology major, is currently taking Villafane’s class. She said Villafane has expanded her way of thinking and viewpoints on the importance of culture.

“She has inspired me to take more ethnic studies classes in the future,” Gutierrez said.

La Raza department Chairperson Agustin Palacios said that Villafane brings the professional qualifications and diversity to CCC.

“She has the personality, educational background and experiences that students can relate to,” he said.

One thing that Villafane has learned based on her college experience is not taking “no” for an answer, she said. “Don’t let anyone shut doors on you. Instead go to the next one until you achieve success.

“And as we say in (the) Nuyorican (phrase),  ‘pa’lante siempre pa’lante,’ meaning keep going forward.”