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Centenarian began four-generation legacy of higher learning at Victoria College

Staffords_cropped Bernice Nelson’s family has produced four generations of Victoria College students, including herself. Pictured with Nelson are, from left, her daughter, Ginny Stafford; great-grandson, Jayden Dolezal; and granddaughter, Carla Nolen.

Back in 1963 when she was 45 years old, Bernice Nelson figured it was time to go back to school.

“I just always loved learning,” said Nelson, who turned 101 on Nov. 3. “My children were all educated, and my husband was working nights, so I needed to get out of the house during the daytime.”

Little did Nelson know 56 years ago that she would be the first of four generations and counting to attend Victoria College.

Nelson’s daughter, Ginny Stafford, first attended Victoria College immediately after graduating from Victoria High School in 1971. Stafford took a break from her higher education pursuits until at the age of 40, like her mother, she felt the urge to return to school. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Houston-Victoria in 1994.

Nelson’s granddaughter and Stafford’s daughter, Carla Nolen, attended Victoria College in 2001-02 and followed in her mother’s footsteps by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UHV. Nolen’s son, Jayden Dolezal is a senior at Victoria West High School and is currently taking dual-credit classes at VC.

“It’s kind of crazy to know everyone – my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma – they all went here to Victoria College,” Dolezal said.

Dolezal didn’t know until recently that his great-grandmother attended Victoria College.

“He didn’t know Victoria College was around back then,” Stafford said.

Nelson and her husband, newspaperman P.M. Nelson, moved to Victoria from Amherst, Texas in 1956.

“Back in that day, women were supposed to finish high school, get married and have a family,” Nelson said. “My own father told me that. I didn’t agree with that at all.”

Nelson said she felt a little uneasy when she first stepped on the Victoria College campus.

“I thought all those 18-year-old freshmen were going to call me ‘granny,’ ” Nelson said. “But they called me by my first name and treated me like I was 18 years old. That made me feel good. I enjoyed every minute of going to Victoria College.”

Nelson graduated from Victoria College with an associate degree in 1965. Her husband encouraged her to continue her education at then-Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos.

“He bought me a car so I could go to school there,” said Nelson, who lived in a dorm on campus. “I went there for one semester, but I got homesick. My children needed their mom. Their education was more important than mine, so I came back home.”

Nelson went on to teach 11 years at Victoria Christian School.

“I loved it,” said Nelson, who taught preschool children. “I was able to play jacks with children and get paid for it.”

Stafford also taught at Victoria Christian School for five years before accepting a job with Mid-Coast Family Services as a drug-prevention specialist.

“Someone told me they had an opening at Gulf Bend Center, and I accidentally applied at Mid-Coast Family Services,” said Stafford, who now serves as the nonprofit organization’s chief executive officer. “They offered me a job, and I have been there for the last 22 years.”

Stafford said she learned during her time at VC to develop critical thinking skills, which have proved beneficial in her career.

“When I was going to VC, the country was in the middle of the Vietnam War,” Stafford said. “Authority and leadership were being questioned. That empowered me to think beyond the obvious. I started to look at problems and situations differently. VC challenged me while also providing me enough independence.”

Nolen was a new mother when she attended Victoria College.

“I just had Jayden, and balancing school, being a mom and working at a job was difficult,” Nolen said. “But if I ever felt overwhelmed or didn’t know what classes to take, the people at VC were always helpful.”

Like her grandmother and mother, Nolen went into the education field and is a second-grade teacher at Schorlemmer Elementary.

“I found out that it’s okay to stay home and go to college in your hometown,” said Nolen, who first attended Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “I went off right away and blew it. It’s a good thing to use VC as a stepping stone to get your first college experience here.”

Nolen was insistent on her son taking dual-credit classes at VC while attending West.

“We looked into VC, and they really worked with him to get the courses that not only would count for college credits, but for his art that he needed for high school, too,” Nolen said. “Those options that made sense were relevant for him starting his adult life.”

“There are actually a lot more students at West taking dual-credit classes at VC than I expected,” said Dolezal, who is currently taking English and art classes at VC while participating in three sports. “There are about 30 West students in one of my classes.”