BELLINGHAM - For the past 21 years, Viva Barnes has been measuring her life in 12-week increments and batches of flashcards.
In 1988, the single mother began taking one class per quarter while she worked in Western Washington University's cashier office. On Saturday, Dec. 12, Barnes, now 55, graduated from Western with two degrees.
"That felt great," said Barnes, who now works in the anthropology department and hopes to stay there. "I felt like I actually accomplished something. I feel like I walk taller. I feel proud of myself."
At first, Barnes was nervous about going back to college as a woman in her 30s. But she knew that working toward her business degree would be good for her career, so she signed up for her first math class.
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"At first it was intimidating because everyone was half my age," she said. "It was a little hard to sit in a classroom of 18- and 19-year-olds who had memories. I found the students were more than encouraging. They didn't separate me out as an older student. They were friendly."
While her original reason for taking classes was upward mobility at work, that goal changed as the years rolled by. School became a way to build herself, more than her career.
"I think that's what it started to become," she said. "It's advancement, but it's also enrichment in your own life. You learn so many different things that it gives a different perspective for your mind to work on. That's something I've always liked, is learning new things."
Instead of business courses, she began taking Japanese, so she could communicate with her grandparents. When she found out that was only offered as a minor, she decided to major in Spanish.
When she was almost done with her Spanish degree, the English department began offering a degree in creative writing, something she'd always been interested in. She now has degrees in Spanish and creative writing.
During the school year, Barnes would spend her weekends catching up on homework and would study after she put her daughter, Nichole Chunphakvenn, to bed. She remembers sitting next to her daughter while both worked on their math homework, taking breaks to help her daughter figure out the trickier problems.
She took summer quarters off to spend time with her daughter, but sometimes the work caught up with her. Sometimes the piles of homework and projects and flashcards just got to be too high.
"There were several points where I thought, 'Why am I doing this?' Because it takes up so much time and so much of your schedule," she said. "My family believes in education very strongly, so that was something important to complete. Even in my most discouraging moments, I thought, 'I'll do it for them.'"
Barnes' mother and daughter were both present for her graduation and proud of what Barnes had accomplished. Barnes is the first person in three generations to have graduated from college.
Her daughter, 27, now has a child of her own and hopes to go back to school when things calm down.
"I think it helped her a lot to see me graduate, just knowing it could be done," Barnes said. "She'll probably go back, and then she won't feel so awkward because her mother did it."