Pam and Marisa DeWolfe have a busy week ahead.
The mother and daughter, who are the oldest and youngest members of Central Oregon Community College’s class of 2009, will take finals this week.
On Saturday, they’ll graduate from COCC with associate degrees, and Pam DeWolfe will give a speech at commencement.
And on Sunday, the pair will pack up and head for Corvallis, where they’ll begin work toward bachelor’s degrees at Oregon State University.
“I never dreamed this would be the education that would happen for either of us,” said the 61-year-old. “But it’s been an amazing adventure.”
Five years ago, they moved to Redmond from Brookings, where Pam DeWolfe worked on fishing boats and served as director of the city’s summer recreation program.
“I’d been a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, and when I became a single parent, I realized I needed to generate a better income and get a better education,” she said.
She sought help from several people at Southwestern Oregon Community College, who eventually pointed her to COCC’s Outdoor Leadership program.
“It was the perfect program for me,” the mother said.
“I said, ‘There’s no way I can afford this,’ and they said, ‘There’s a way.’”
And so the DeWolfes moved to Central Oregon.
Marisa, now 18, had been home-schooled through the sixth grade but began attending Pilot Butte Middle School when she came to town.
“I was thrown in at the worst possible time,” she said, laughing.
With the help of some wonderful teachers, Marisa said, she made it through. At the end of eighth grade, her mother gave her a choice: She could attend Redmond High School, return to home-schooling or attend COCC.
“I figured since I could, I might as well get started” with college, Marisa said.
For Pam DeWolfe, the decision to allow her daughter to start college-level classes was easy.
“I knew she was really way ahead and that she might be bored in high school,” she said. “She had been on campus, and she likes the environment here.”
At the registrar’s urging, Marisa started with one class to see how she’d handle it.
After that first term, Marisa loaded her class schedule with 12 credits and never looked back.
As for Pam, who was 57 at the time, there was only one person near her age in her classes.
“The younger people accepted me; they were just really great,” she said. “But they did ask if I was an instructor sometimes.”
Same campus, different paths
Over their years at COCC, the mother and daughter have taken two classes together: biology and world geography. They commute to and from campus together, and sometimes grab lunch.
When she was younger, Marisa would send her mom text messages throughout the day to let her know she was all right. But other than that, they spent most days independent of each other, with work-study jobs in different computer labs and their interests leading them to different classes.
Marisa wants to study microbiology at OSU, then attend Oregon Health & Science University to study clinical microbiology, with a goal of becoming a researcher in a hospital laboratory.
Originally, Pam DeWolfe had planned to finish her associate degree and return to work. Instead, she’s tracked down more scholarships, taken out a couple of loans and will seek her bachelor’s degree. She plans to be the first horticultural therapy graduate from OSU, helping people recover from injuries through plants, gardening and natural studies.
“I told her when I was younger that she’d follow me (to college),” Marisa said. “Now it’s more like we’re following each other to college.”
Marisa said that when they went for new student orientation in Corvallis, they expected that on such a huge campus they’d hardly ever see each other. But, as it turns out, most of their classes will be in buildings right next to each other.
“They’re connected by a sky bridge,” Marisa said.
She’s happy to have her mom along.
“It’s nice that she’s there if we need each other,” Marisa said.
While at COCC, they maximized their time on campus with plenty of extracurricular activities.
They joined the student ambassadors program, giving tours and helping recruit students. And Pam DeWolfe worked with new students in “getting started” workshops.
Then, after meeting other nontraditional students, the mother and daughter decided to start a nontraditional students club. Marisa participated in the Anime Club, while her mother represented COCC’s Native American club at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, N.M., and wrote for COCC’s student newspaper, “The Broadside.”
Both participated in the College Way Women’s Collective and other clubs around campus.
They’re both well-known, but Marisa said her mom seems to have made a lot of connections.
“I’m definitely known as Pam’s daughter,” Marisa said, laughing.
And they weren’t slouches in the classroom, either.
Tom Barry, a sociology professor at COCC, had both DeWolfe women in class at different times.
“They both were excellent students,” Barry said. “They were dedicated, curious, interested, responsible. They were just a pleasure to have in class.”
Barry had the elder DeWolfe in class first.
“She’s ideal in the classroom. Regardless of who the person is, and what they do in class, she is just always outgoing and cheerful and engaging,” Barry said. “How could anyone not want to talk to Pam?”
Barry was equally impressed with Marisa, particularly her focus and dedication.
“She fit right in,” he said. “Marisa’s a dedicated student, and she follows through with what’s required.”
At 16, Marisa earned her GED. This month, as her peers have punctuated their graduations with proms and parties, Marisa has been busy studying for finals and preparing to graduate from COCC. She said she’s happy with the way her life has moved forward.
“Only two people have ever told me I missed the best years of my life,” she said. “Most people say, ‘Wow. I wish I could have done that.’”
COCC professor Eddie Johnson, who taught Marisa microbiology, anatomy and physiology over the past two years, assumed Marisa was older than 18.
“She has this level of maturity, you don’t really realize (her true age),” Johnson said.
Even when they’re not in school, the pair continue seeking out educational opportunities. For two summers, Pam DeWolfe worked for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as an interpretive naturalist at the Prineville Reservoir State Park. Marisa helped out, one summer racking up 450 hours of volunteer service.
During the summer, Marisa has also attended Oregon Museum of Science and Industry camps and done internships, and last summer she spent time at the University of Hawaii in Hilo studying marine biology.
The next step
Now they’re on to their next adventure. They’ve tuned up their bikes to prepare for commutes to and from the OSU campus, and found a house that has private areas for each of them and a common area in the middle.
They’ll get moved in, then start summer courses.
First, though, there are some final things to take care of here in Bend. On Saturday, Pam DeWolfe will give a speech at graduation.
“I’m nervous to tears,” she said.
She thinks she knows why she was chosen to speak.
“I’m really intense on encouraging people not to stop at their certificate, or their two-year degree or their four-year degree,” she said. “If I see a student struggling ... I get adamant, I want them to connect with a professor or someone who can help.”
That encouragement and strength, Marisa said, is one reason she’s found herself on the path to success at such a young age.
“She gave me courage. If she can do it, so can I,” Marisa said. “It’s one thing to start (college) early. It’s another thing to have the courage to go back.”