54-Year-Old Mom Just Another Freshman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She stands 4-foot-10 in her Reeboks, and her collegiate wardrobe runs to pullovers and blue jeans.

On campus, her book bag slung over her shoulder, she blends into the bustling crowd of students moving between lecture halls and libraries.

She is a full-time freshman at Pomona College who eats in the dining halls, lives in a dorm and attends lectures, movies and theater performances. In many ways, Clara Cato is just like her 1,349 fellow students. The only difference is she is 54 years old.

Until this fall, Cato had put her education on hold for 37 years. First she had to help her parents support a family of nine children. Then she struggled as a single mother to rear a daughter.

But now Cato's daughter, Angela, is 22 and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. So the Catos struck a mother-daughter bargain: They agreed it was time for Mom.

"We have been working on a plan of five years of schooling for her and five years of schooling for me," Clara Cato said. "My life has been put on hold 22 years to take care of hers. It was important to me that she get her education first.

"I never gave up on the possibility," she said softly. "The key word to me is opportunity. Opportunity does not knock for everybody. My personal approach is to prepare myself and go out looking for it. I have been looking for the chance to finally attend college all these years."

Nowadays, mother and daughter sometimes find their roles reversed.

"She wanted to come to parents' weekend," Clara Cato said.

"She sends me care packages and calls me to check whether I'm getting my term papers turned in on time. She asks me if I'm eating right.

"She monitors me closer than I monitored her."

Cato lives in the residence hall of the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations. She lives in a single-room suite where she shares a bathroom with another dorm resident.

Like other students, Cato has marked her dorm territory with a message board, name sign and dangling pencil on the door.

Inside, the walls are covered with favorite posters and pictures: an autographed portrait of one of her favorite actors, Edward James Olmos; prints of Claude Monet landscapes; a poster of a man cradling a baby in his arms.

Her small dresser and desk are covered with papers and books, reminders that she has three term papers to complete. Atop the desk, amid evidence of academic pursuits, is a small framed picture of her daughter.

Moving into a campus dorm required some sacrifices. She moved from a small house in Highland Park and gave her furniture to friends and Goodwill.

"I dissolved a household to come here," she said.

But she's not complaining. For Cato, attending Pomona College was a long-held dream. Back in high school, a favorite teacher who had attended the college told her about its language programs.

Graduating in 1952 from Edison High School in Fresno, Cato found herself working full time to help her parents support her eight siblings. Cato is the third-oldest child, and college was out of the question.

"I couldn't afford it," she said. "After high school, I got a small scholarship to California State University at Fresno but couldn't go and turned it down."

She took clerical jobs and moved to Los Angeles in 1964. She also got married and had a child. She divorced her husband three years later, moved to South Pasadena and managed to bring up her daughter while working full time for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Cato is enrolled in four full-time courses: Western civilization, intermediate Spanish, psychology of the Chicano and a required writing course called freshman seminar. She also is taking a yoga class.

Although she has not chosen a major, Cato is determined to become fluent in Spanish and is considering teaching. She plans to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country for a semester during her junior year. She also hopes to attend graduate school.

Cato said she received no special breaks in launching her college career at Pomona.

"I had to apply just like any other student," she said.

She said she took the Scholastic Aptitude Test and achievement tests in English and Spanish, enrolled in junior college courses and met all the application and financial aid deadlines.

The only thing that can stop her now is financial trouble, she said.

Tuition at the small private college this year runs about $13,000, and room and board costs an additional $5,250.

Cato's education is being financed by state and federal grants, student loans and college employment. Cato works in the chaplain's office, where she does clerical work twice a week. She said she will seek special scholarships for more financial aid in the future.

After three months of adjusting to campus life, Cato said she feels comfortable as a student.

One of Pomona's most attractive qualities is its small college atmosphere in which professors and students know one another, she said.

"I love the warmth of the whole dorm," she said. "Once in a while, I'll be mistaken for someone's mother. But other than that, your classmates treat you like another freshman."

Bruce Poch, the college's dean of admissions, said Cato is one of only two students over the age of 30 enrolled full time at the institution.

In general, experts say, older students tend to perform better in the classroom than their younger peers.

"They generally get A's and B's. They hate getting low grades. There's an incredible amount of pressure to do better," said Barbara McDowell, director of the Women's Center and Adult Reentry Center at Cal State Fullerton.

For some, it's stressful to return to student life after working as an independent, mature adult. "During the first semester, their self-esteem is very low," McDowell said. "They believe they are the only older student on campus. And they have an overwhelming number of obligations."

Even though Cato always believed she would reach her goal, she said her family and friends sometimes had their doubts.

"Most of them are real excited and supportive about it now. At the time when I was voicing it as a dream, some of them thought I was reaching for the stars. . . something that was impossible.

"But I never gave up. I've got lots of good friends and family, and they are happy I have a dream and am working toward achieving it. . . . This is a risk, but one with promise," she said.

Cato lives by a philosophy she says her parents taught her.

"The two of them really affected my life a lot. My mother always wanted us to appreciate what we did have. She would always say, 'Don't envy the wealthy because they pay dues, too.'

"I think a lot of the strength from my father came from not placing limits on himself or his children. His challenge to each of us was we had two strikes against us. He would say, 'One, you are black. Two, you are poor. It's not what you're going to do with the strikes against you, but what you do with what you have left.' "

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