First, retirement. Now she’s part of Fresno City College’s record-breaking class of 2019

At 75, Virginia Price-Aguilar completes her journey of graduation from Fresno City College

At 75, Virginia Price-Aguilar completes her journey of graduation from Fresno City College, Virginia Price-Aguilar, becoming the college’s oldest graduate of 2019, and seeks to inspire others.
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At 75, Virginia Price-Aguilar completes her journey of graduation from Fresno City College, Virginia Price-Aguilar, becoming the college’s oldest graduate of 2019, and seeks to inspire others.

When Virginia Price-Aguilar retired, she thought it’d be a good time to finally get her degree.

So she set off at Fresno City College in 1998, taking only a few classes at a time.

The now 75-year-old pressed on slowly but steadily toward this year, when she was part of Fresno City’s largest graduating class of all time.

Among 1,915 graduates, Price-Aguilar was the oldest to walk across the stage on May 24. Her associate degree in African American studies was 21 years – maybe even a lifetime – in the making.

For Price-Aguilar, earning a degree wasn’t about landing a good job or getting a salary boost. It was personal. “I needed to do this for myself,” Price-Aguilar said, “to complete something.”

Although she’d always wanted to graduate college, it wasn’t something she could do until retirement.

“Life,” Price-Aguilar said, got in the way.

After marrying at 17, she spent time raising her children, grandchildren and foster children. She opened a daycare after retiring from customer service at AT&T, and continued to take classes at Fresno City.

Her work with foster kids was a deciding factor to major in social work when she began.

About five years ago, she switched over to African American studies.

“I wanted to know about my culture,” she said. “If you don’t know where you came from, sometimes you don’t know where you’re going.”

Never too old to accomplish your dreams

Price-Aguilar didn’t initially realize she was the oldest graduate, but she wants to serve as an inspiration to others.

“If it serves as an encouragement to someone else that you’re never too old to accomplish your dreams,” she said, “then I’m happy about that.”

She never doubted her ability to earn her degree because of her age. In fact, she’s seen the benefits of going to school in her later years: It’s allowed her to keep active and keep her mind stimulated.

Although she isn’t thinking of continuing her studies, Price-Aguilar said slowing down is not in the cards for her, either.

“At this point,” she said, “I’m thinking about getting a job.”

The record-breaking class

Fresno City College is going through a cultural and organizational shift, according President Carole Goldsmith.

Graduation numbers have been steadily increasing in the past few years, with a noticeable jump from 2017 to 2019, which saw an 18.4% increase in associate degrees. Fresno State’s 2019 class was also its largest.

Goldsmith, who has been at the helm of the college for about three years, said the record-breaking numbers this year could be attributed to several initiatives that she’s helped put into place.

Last year, the college piloted what’s called Student Success Teams, and it was fully implemented this year.

Each student is assigned several advisers to help with academic counseling, financial aid, transferring and more. “They’re going to check on you, they’re going to send you emails, they may text you,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing improved gains.”

The Student Success Teams initiative won an innovation award recently at the Chief Student Services Officers Association annual conference.

The college is also streamlining classes, and working with students to create educational plans.

“Were moving away from giving a student a catalog and saying, ‘here you go, you have all the options, the world is your oyster,’” Goldsmith says. “Now we’re taking a guided pathway approach and saying, ‘OK, you want to be a business major? Here are some classes that we know will keep you on the path to be able to graduate on time.’”

Goldsmith also believes taking college courses into high schools is helping.

Because of dual enrollment, 30 high schoolers received their associate degree before their high school diploma this year.

About 2,800 students in Fresno, Kerman, Easton and at Central Unified are enrolled, taking college courses along with their high school classes. The enrollment rate has surged in the past few years, and Goldsmith hopes the trend continues.

Despite the new initiatives, Goldsmith said the college hasn’t added additional staff.

“We’ve redeployed staff,” she said. “That’s the beautiful part.”

She expects to see the graduation rates rise as the strategies they’ve implemented pay off in the coming years.

Goldsmith stressed that the shifts at Fresno City College are, at their core, about creating a sense of belonging.

“You need to show up and do your part,” she said, “but people here care.”

Ashleigh Panoo: 559-441-6010, @AshleighPanoo
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