When Jean de Grassi delivers her commencement address Friday morning, she suspects many people in the audience at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock will be thinking, "Come on ... get it over with."
Others might listen for a moment, then tune out because they've heard these kinds of speeches before or because
8 a.m. graduations simply tax attention spans.
But, just maybe she'll find a few in the crowd looking for some inspiration.
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"I want to touch the hearts of people who might be sitting there thinking, 'I'm not special,' " de Grassi said.
She wants them to know they, too, can fulfill their dreams by returning to school and getting their degrees while juggling parenthood and providing for their families. They, too, can be special and have their moment, just as she will enjoy hers come Friday.
"I want these people to know it's worth it," de Grassi said.
She isn't your stereotypical twentysomething commencement speaker heading out into the brave new, you're-finally-out-
on-your-own world. She's 52 years old and a single mom of two grown children, one, a daughter who -- thanks to mom -- beat her to a college diploma by a year.
She spent years working three jobs to make ends meet while putting her children and herself through school. She's been down financially and emotionally, but refused to give in.
In other words, she's lived a little.
"I've been through depression, where I thought the world wouldn't need me around," said de Grassi, who has been a mentor to others returning to college later in life. "But you don't know the lives you are touching. It's true; a 'Pay It Forward' (doing good deeds to change lives) type of thing."
She moved to Modesto shortly after graduating from Ukiah High School in 1973, sandwiching a semester at Modesto Junior College between courses at Santa Rosa Junior College before getting married at 21.
Her husband, Milo de Grassi, flew fire tanker planes for a private contractor, and they traveled throughout the West and Pacific Northwest, living out of their trailer. They called towns such as Thermopolis, Wyo.; Missoula, Mont.; and Cave Junction, Ore., home for brief periods of time.
He later worked for TransWorld Airlines in the Bay Area before moving to Stockton to start his own company. He rebuilt old World War II aircraft, "war birds," and they attended air shows. She handled the books and the marketing, but there just weren't enough customers to keep the company aloft.
"When his business started going under, I had to find a job," de Grassi said.
Her husband moved to Oregon, leaving the family behind. She went to work as a bookkeeper for a Stockton-
based company that installed and maintained aircraft propellers. When that company went belly up, she found herself dealing with the Internal Revenue Service because the company's owner had not paid some payroll and other taxes. It took her several years to convince the IRS and the state she wasn't responsible or liable for the company's tax woes.
Out of a job, de Grassi found another in Berkeley, but the commute left her little time for her children. Things began to change in 2000. Her sister, Lisa Austin of Modesto, works at Cal State Stanislaus. When a job opened in the vice provost's office, Austin encouraged de Grassi to apply. She got it, and worked in Turlock for about a year before an administrative position opened at the university's Stockton campus.
Meanwhile, de Grassi started back to college by taking a course here and there, including one with her daughter, at Delta College in Stockton.
"We took a statistics class together," Laura de Grassi said. "She's the most hard-working person I know. But it was funny. We'd be studying, and I'd get tired and go to bed. She'd keep studying. The next day, we'd take the test and I'd do better. She'd get mad."
Jean de Grassi often held two other part-time jobs to support her family, and helped pay Laura's tuition when she transferred to the University of the Pacific for her junior year.
"She's like the queen of sacrifice," said Laura, 23, who graduated from UOP in 2007 and works as a dental hygienist in the Bay Area. "If my brother's and my needs weren't being met first, she'd drop a class. She took care of me and David first before she concentrated on her own studies."
David, 20, attends Cal State Monterey Bay.
Having prodded her children toward college degrees, de Grassi knew she needed to finish, too.
"Not only telling them education is important, but showing them, too," she said. "They have not had it easy. Sometimes, they had to be alone and I couldn't give them everything the other kids had. But they know the value of things, the value of hard work and dedication."
It took de Grassi five years of classes at CSU, Stanislaus, most of them at the Stockton campus, to reach this point. Friday, she'll graduate with a bachelor's degree in communication studies, and she received the department's outstanding student honor.
Nancy Burroughs, an associate professor in the department, said de Grassi mentored other students returning to college later in life.
"She brings a wealth of life experiences and knowledge into the classroom," Burroughs said. "She really applies what she's done in the past to what she's learning, and shares her experiences with her classmates to motivate them. We really don't get many students like Jean."
With a 3.86 grade point average, de Grassi was chosen from a pool of 25 students who wanted to give the commencement address.
While other grads could speak glowingly about their futures, de Grassi will talk about living the dream from the perspective of experience, self-sacrifice and parental responsibility.
And she'll stand there as living proof that, yes, returning to college is worth it.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.