At 67, she joins the ranks of Texas Tech alumni, like her husband and three children.
In many ways, SanJuanita Valenciano is like her fellow Texas Tech University seniors. She's been going to class and studying hard, and she's excited to be graduating this week. After all, she's been working toward this day for a long time.
Unlike the other seniors, SanJuanita won't be heading into the workforce or graduate school. She'll be starting a well-deserved retirement.
"I always joke, I'm on the 45-year plan to graduate," she laughs.
It's true. Nearly 50 years after beginning her college education, the 67-year-old will walk the stage this weekend and receive the diploma she's been waiting for her whole life.
A long time coming
During her senior year at Lubbock High School, SanJuanita met Jose Valenciano. He was a freshman at Texas Tech, and they were immediately smitten with one another. She graduated in the spring of 1971 and started that fall at Lubbock Christian University, but after one semester, she quit school to marry Jose and start a family. Their daughter, Samantha, was born in 1972.
Jose continued at Texas Tech and, as he was preparing to graduate with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering technology, SanJuanita knew she wanted to continue her education as well. She enrolled at Texas Tech for the spring of 1977, while pregnant with her daughter Bianca. Jose graduated that May and took a job with Atmos Energy, which took the family to Amarillo. SanJuanita put her education on hold again.
Their growing family lived in Amarillo for 10 years, where son Antonio was born, and then they spent several years in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. They returned to Lubbock in 1993, and SanJuanita jumped at the chance to re-enroll. With three children of her own and a position as a teaching assistant for special education classes at Monterey High School, she could commit to only one class per semester, but SanJuanita was excited about the prospect of finally reaching her goal.
Life, however, had more obstacles in store for the Valencianos.
Bumps in the road
Back at Texas Tech, SanJuanita began having excruciating joint and back pain.
"I really wanted to pursue my education in education, to be a teacher," SanJuanita said. "But I just wasn't comfortable enough to say that I could teach, not to the level I wanted to, with the way I was feeling every day."
"She suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis," Jose explained. "She had, the doctor said, the worst case he'd ever seen in West Texas."
After undergoing her third back surgery, doctors deemed her medically disabled and told her she could attend school, but she would never be able to work.
"It just killed her entire spirit," Jose said. "And that was just the end of it."
Except, it wasn't.
Keeping up with the Valencianos
During that time, all three of the Valenciano children attended and graduated from Texas Tech.
Samantha graduated in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport sciences and again in 2000 from the Teaching Effectiveness And Career enhancement (TEACH) Program through the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center. Bianca graduated in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in English. Antonio graduated in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in restaurant, hotel & institutional management.
Jose, who had begun working at Texas Tech in 2007, started his master's degree in 2012 – "just for the sake of something to do," he says – but it helped SanJuanita refocus on her education.
"That kind of fueled her again," Jose said. "She said, 'If you can get two degrees, I can surely get one.'
"She lives with more pain than most human beings ever know, but she's a fighter and she doesn't stop, and her drive was to finish," he added. "From day one, she always said, 'I'm going to finish; I'm going to teach my children and grandchildren to finish what you start.' Well, I applaud her because it's easy to say, 'I hurt too much, and I just can't do this.' It's much tougher to say, 'I'm going to do it.'"
Between her three back surgeries and two broken ankles, SanJuanita continued taking classes, no longer focusing purely on education. But with so many things going on simultaneously, it came as something of a surprise to her when she found out she was finally a senior by hours.
It was so unexpected, she admits, that when she was asked what her major was, she didn't know what to say. Her adviser looked at the credits she had accumulated and said she had the most in Spanish, history and education. They said she could combine them for an interdisciplinary degree if she wished, but knowing she would never be able to teach, she decided to major in Spanish and minor in history.
So what's the secret to achieving your goals, no matter what stands in your way?
SanJuanita says faith; Jose says perseverance.
"She is a woman of strong faith," he added, "and she persevered through all her obstacles."
Looking to the future
Jose has been retired for a year now. Once SanJuanita is, too, they plan to travel, spend more time with their four grandchildren – two of whom are currently Texas Tech students – and volunteer for their church.
"We're very, very strong advocates of prayer, and it's gotten us through her challenges, so we intend to pay it forward," Jose said. "We're very, very thankful. Two times, I almost lost her, but I got her back."
For SanJuanita's part, even while she's happy to see what comes next, a part of her is sad to close the door on this very long chapter of her life.
"I'm really excited, but I also don't really want it to end," she said. "I just love the atmosphere of Texas Tech. I love seeing the kids walking to class, because they are the future, you know? And I'm going to miss that. I really am."
As she exits the campus, though, she'll enter the ranks of Texas Tech alumni, joining the rest of her family.
"We bleed red and black," Jose said. "Now, when she holds her guns up, she'll be one of the group. We're all grads, and she will be, too."