Centennial Stories on alumna Opal

San José City College Centennial: Opal

When San José City College alumna, Opal, attended City College in the 1980’s, she had no idea it would change the course of her life as much as it did. Thanks to an attentive, caring instructor and her continued persistence to get a degree, she was able to find a way through her circumstances to have a career she enjoyed and discover and pursue her life’s passions.

We had the opportunity to talk with Opal for San José City College’s Centennial Celebration, about her experience at City College and how one conversation with Instructor Charles Hunter changed everything for her.

After moving to San José, California, from New York with my late mom and younger sister in 1979, I started my senior year in high school. A few weeks after graduating high school, I landed my first real job working retail part-time. In September 1980, I started attending SJCC full-time. I wanted to be an accountant and got cured of that when I did the practice set. Straightening out colored confetti simulating financial chaos was not my idea of a career. I continued in Business Administration and was a busy gal with a full load at SJCC while working part-time.

My world changed in 1982. I took a speedreading class with Instructor Charles “Chuck” Hunter that fall semester. He really cared about his students and seemed to love what he did. He radiated enthusiasm. One day, he came to class quite perturbed about an encounter he had with a student who complained about their free family housing. Chuck was flabbergasted at the attitude since that student’s free home was larger than his that he had to pay for.

After class, I followed Chuck to his office. He was heading to the racquetball court, so I escorted him. Along the way, I asked how I could get housing like that ungrateful student. Chuck asked about my circumstances and I answered vaguely. When he cornered me with his questions, I let out my ugly secret that my family was living in our car. Chuck froze and looked at me with much concern. He turned around 180-degrees and we headed back to his office. I proceeded to tell him my story while he listened intently feeding me Kleenex when I cried. 

My mom wasn’t working, and I was paying for everything. For whatever reason which I still don’t know, we were evicted from our apartment. We bounced from hotel room to hotel room until I ran out of savings and could only afford to support the car household. It was truly a stressful time, and I still had my school deadlines and job to attend to while my personal life was a mess. 

“I never would have believed that I would be in Sydney, Australia, gazing at ‘my’ Opera House being 7,500 miles from home while writing a term paper in the back seat of the car with a flashlight working toward an associate degree.” 

Opal on how far she’s come since attending City College

We talked multiple times a week. Chuck would propose possible solutions, but my mom would shoot them down. She didn’t like me talking with Chuck, but I’m glad I continued talking with him as I kept going to school and work. 

I graduated from SJCC at the end of the fall semester in 1982 on the Dean’s list with an associate degree in Business Administration. Before leaving campus after my final exam, Chuck provided his phone number so we could continue talking about my situation. Eventually I called, and the dialog continued.

In January 1983, I landed a second part-time job and transferred to SJSU. I enrolled in a Finance class as a Business Management major to attend school part-time while coping with homelessness.

Then I got my break. While driving, my mom hit a man who ran the light. Since he was at fault, she received insurance money to fix the car which I insisted be directed at paying for everything. As she paid for our meager existence, I saved every penny I earned. In talking with Chuck, he pointed out how I needed to think about myself instead of my family because of mom’s passiveness. He sold me on the idea of getting my own apartment. I pushed back hard thinking about my sister who was in junior high school. I felt she was my responsibility, but Chuck showed me it wasn’t true. I started looking and found a studio apartment four blocks away from SJCC.

We had duplicates (2 living rooms, 2 televisions, etc.) of everything from the New York house we sold in public storage that my mom agreed to let me use to furnish my 150 square-foot apartment. Chuck and his son helped me move in for my personal independence day: April 1, 1983.

Now I was on my own … with a bicycle. Chuck’s other son had a new moped which I bought from him. After paying for the apartment’s cleaning deposit, the first month’s rent and the moped, I had only $100 left in the bank. Rent took 75% of my pay. Things were tight, but I was surviving. I still didn’t believe I could be on my own, but Chuck pointed out that I “WAS” on my own and I “WAS” surviving.

The second job’s hours were dwindling, so I found another job that would ramp up from part-time to full-time after the probationary period. Over the next six weeks, I worked three jobs and over 70 hours a week. Once the new job went full-time, I soon quit the other two jobs to have one full-time job.

“Things were tight, but I was surviving. I still didn’t believe I could be on my own, but Chuck pointed out that I ‘WAS’ on my own and I ‘WAS’ surviving.”

Opal on supporting herself on her own for the first time

For the fall 1983 semester, I left SJSU and went back to SJCC because Business Management just wasn’t for me. I took different classes while working full-time to see what I wanted to do. During this time, I learned Spanish and became tri-lingual. After marketing classes didn’t appeal to me, I took a computer class and it clicked for me. 

With my full-time job, I saved enough money to buy my first car in 1984 and finance my first trip back east to visit my family. In 1985, I heard about a position opening at Lockheed in Sunnyvale. I applied and landed a job there. Shortly after, I moved closer to work, into a junior one-bedroom apartment. 

A co-worker from an earlier job had her degree on her office wall. I knew I wanted one with my name on it. I found out Lockheed had a tuition reimbursement program. So, in 1986 I enrolled in it and went back to SJSU as a Computer Science major.

At this point, I was a part-time student and worked full-time. Financially, I was living below my means so I could continue to save, and I was making additional money from a few promotions I was given. In 1987, I bought a one-bedroom, one-bathroom mobile home, no longer sharing walls, ceilings, or floors. I had a carport and a little yard where I planted five rosebushes. I travelled during semester breaks, visiting family and friends. I learned about cruises at work. I decided to take my first cruise in 1990 and loved it. This pattern continued until 1995 when I graduated from SJSU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and a Math minor, triggering a five percent pay increase. A week after I graduated, I went on a cruise that was my first of multiple trips to Europe. 

After fifteen years without taking a break, there was no more school! Woohoo! Life was spent with music (piano and guitar), concerts and shows, friends, travel (cruises and trips to visit family and friends), and yardwork while having a full-time engineering career. 

I was a software engineer at Lockheed when a project was cancelled. The Valley was booming, so I searched outside of Lockheed and accepted a job with a twenty-five percent pay increase. After 13 years to the day, I left Lockheed and started as a Technical Support Engineer for a software company. A year later, I bought my current single-story, three-bedroom, two-bath house with a front and back yard.

“All of those quizzes, tests, midterms, projects, programs, etc., were so worth the reward I have experienced. I’m so glad I went to SJCC.”

Opal about her time at City College

I’ve been an engineer for over twenty-five years for several different companies. Engineering has been a male dominant field that pays very well. Since I am a saver, I have had the funds to travel all over the world. I have been to 51 countries and US territories worldwide. Being a musician, I love attending live concerts and shows in addition to playing my two pianos, one of which is my grand in my dream room: the music room. I love roses and have eighteen rosebushes in my front yard. I also love to garden, or as I call it, ‘be on the farm’ in the backyard with the raised beds I built that I didn’t know I could.

I am simply loving life and continue to feel blessed as to how far I have come. I am humbled, flattered, and honored to be part of this centennial. It all started crying in Chuck’s office so long ago at SJCC. I’ve gone way beyond my wildest dreams and am so grateful for what Chuck did for me back then. My academic counselor at SJCC, Judy Rookstool, also helped me along the way. We hit it off and talked frequently while I was in college. Over the years, I’ve had Chuck and his wife Pat, over for dinner. They are on my distribution list for my trip newsletters and have received my postcards from everywhere.

There is truly power in a degree. SJCC provided an invaluable foundation which set me up quite nicely for my time at SJSU. My associate degree made my resume look good and made me competitive. My bachelor’s degree made me resilient, allowing me to bounce back after episodes of having my job sent to another distant location or being reorganized out of a job. Both degrees have good mileage on them and have been pivotal in my career. I thank SJCC for my fabulous foundation which started it all.

Travel supersized over the years. I started with visiting family back east. Since then, I have been on 29 cruises and 7 land tours worldwide. I’ve been on almost every continent. My favorite place in the world is Sydney, Australia. There, you can find “my” Sydney Opera House and “my” Sydney Harbour Bridge that I climbed. I’ve been to Australia four times, and to Sydney six times. Climbing the bridge was an unbelievable experience where I had an unobstructed view of “my” Opera House, a.k.a. my favorite building in the world. 

I never would have believed that I would be in Sydney, Australia, gazing at “my” Opera House being 7,500 miles from home while writing a term paper in the back seat of the car with a flashlight working toward an associate degree. All of those quizzes, tests, midterms, projects, programs, etc., were so worth the reward I have experienced. I’m so glad I went to SJCC.