Girls on Campus

It’s never too late to go back to school.

It’s 6 o’clock and Karen and Natalie Martinez are eating dinner in the car on the way to school. This has become their routine. They grab something fast (“junk, usually,” Karen admits) and brave the rush-hour traffic from Arlington to the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

If they’re on time for class, they’ll get seats together. Otherwise, they’ll make eye contact from across the room as the professor discusses an upcoming test.They are often mistaken for sisters. But Karen is Natalie’s mom.

Natalie was the one who suggested they enroll in college classes together in January. Though they had always been close, Karen remembers being startled by the idea. “I said, ‘You’d actually want to take classes with me?”

“Of course,” Natalie said. “It would be cool.”

It has been cool. They share the commute and the costly textbooks. They do their homework together at Karen’s desk at work (she is the administrative assistant to the principal at Swanson Middle School) or at the Barnes & Noble in Seven Corners. On school nights, they’re often not home until 10:30. Both plan to pursue careers in education.

“She’s my study-buddy and my classmate,” says Natalie, 20. “She’s a younger mom so I’ve always been able to talk to her and be more open with her.”

Born in El Salvador, Karen moved to the U.S. as a baby and started school in California. But when gang activity began escalating in her neighborhood outside of Los Angeles, her family moved to Virginia. She was halfway through high school in Alexandria—and doing well, with a B average—when she got pregnant at 16.

Her mom saw the news as a life sentence. “This is your future. You’ll be a housekeeper like I am,” she told Karen.

But that prediction only strengthened the teen’s resolve. “After that,” Karen says, “every time I didn’t want to get up in the morning to go to school or I fell asleep with my books, I was like ‘No. That’s not what I want.’ ” And she would get moving.

When Natalie was born prematurely, Karen did her homework on the fly between trips to the NICU at Inova Fairfax Hospital, where her tiny baby underwent surgery to close a heart-valve defect. She brought Natalie home four months later, only to find that she could no longer relate to her friends. Theywere fixated on going to parties and the mall, while she had entered the world of nap schedules, midnight feedings and pediatrician visits.

She transferred to Thomas A. Edison High School in Alexandria to focus on her studies. When she graduated, she handed her diploma to her mom.

Karen’s current course-load at NOVA isn’t her first. She took classes there part-time after marrying Natalie’s father and taking a job at a one-hour photo place. But when the couple divorced in 1999, she dropped out. Eventually, she landed a position as a special-education secretary at Swanson Middle School.

She now has a second daughter, Bryana, 11, with Nelson Torres, her second husband.

Together, they make a good team, Karen says. Before Natalie graduated from Washington-Lee, a typical night would find Torres—who works in home improvement—doing the dishes while Karen sat at the dining room table and helped the girls with their homework. “He says, ‘The way I can help you is by taking care of everything else,’ ” she explains.

Though her own education was on the back burner, Karen says there never was any question that the girls would go to college. Bryana starts at Swanson Middle School this fall (the family lives in Arlington’s Buckingham neighborhood) and wants to work with animals. She already has her sights set on Harvard.

Natalie had hoped to attend a traditional four-year school after graduation, but the cost was prohibitive, so she started night classes at NOVA, working by day as a teaching assistant and in the extended-day program at Carlin Springs Elementary.

Soon after, she suggested her mom join her on campus.

At 36, Karen was excited to carry books and return to the classroom, but she was also nervous. “The first exam in history was a killer,” she recalls. They both passed, Karen with an A, Natalie with a B.

Roger Dallek, who taught history that semester, describes both mother and daughter as “very dedicated students.” In 34 years teaching part-time at NOVA—which has an overall enrollment of 78,000 students—he’s had four husband-and-wife pairs, but only one other parent-child combo.

As school starts back up, Karen and Natalie each have six classes to go to earn their associate’s degrees. After that, both plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees. Natalie wants to teach kindergarten or special education to pre–K kids. Karen hopes to work as an elementary school counselor, or to help families of middle school kids for whom English is a second language.

She’s already got a head start, notes Bridget Loft, principal at Swanson, where Karen has worked for the past 13 years. In her current role, Karen serves as an occasional translator and de facto counselor when needed.

Recently, when a student was sent to the front office and Loft had a meeting, it was Karen who got the boy started writing a note of apology to his teacher. “Karen is able to talk to kids in a way that gets them to see the light,” Loft says. “She’ll be outstanding.”

But first, she has to get through the next semester.

Though working and taking classes simultaneously hasn’t been easy, Karen says her daughter’s companionship has gotten her through the hard parts. “We encourage each other,” she says. That’s what girlfriends are for.

“We’ve always been close,” Natalie adds, “but doing this together brought us closer.”

Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Arlington.

Categories: People