Commencement a good start for UC Merced senior

May 5, 2009 

**EDITORS** This is my choice for the main shot*** SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES UC Merced senior Lena Thomas enjoys a rare moment of calm between her hectic schedule of full-time classes, working and raising her three children. The 40-year-old senior graduates with honors on May 16th. May 1st,


It's almost certain that UC Merced senior Lena Thomas has sent out more commencement notices than any of her classmates.

As a data-entry student worker in the university relations office, Thomas has been verifying the addresses for guests of all sorts to the May 16 commencement ceremony.

That's when she herself will receive her bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in sociology.

But Thomas is much more than just a UC Merced student and employee.

The 40-year-old Mercedian is also the mother of three boys, does medical transcription work from her home and is preparing to attend California State University, Stanislaus, for a master's degree in criminal justice.

"Everyone is afraid to call me because it is either school, work or kids," Thomas said.

A 1987 graduate of Merced High School, Thomas began attending UC Merced in fall 2007 after graduating from Merced College.

The decision to enroll at Merced College came when she was bedridden at home recovering from a double knee replacement surgery.

"I had to change up some things," Thomas said. "I noticed that my younger boys had no aspiration for a college education."

That didn't last long. When Thomas enrolled at Merced College, she was scheduled to spend more than three years there.

Right away she contacted a transfer coordinator at UC Merced. Then Thomas took on huge class loads -- 23 units some semesters -- to transfer by her own strict timetable of just two years.

Mitch Ylarregui, then a transfer services manager at UC Merced, remembers how hard Thomas pushed herself.

"I remember that she was very eager," said Ylarregui, who now works in a similar position to help graduate students. "She's always been an outstanding student and someone that I remember and think about."

Thomas admitted that there were some uncomfortable moments when she first started at UC Merced.

At times, she felt like an outsider, one of only 116 transfer students, in courses with the close-knit full-time students who founded the campus.

"I was a fish out of water," Thomas recalled.

Other times, she wasn't seen as a student at all.

One of her favorite memories is the day she was mistaken for a faculty member. It was her first day on campus and a student stopped her: "Excuse me, professor, do you know where the classroom and office building is?" she remembers the student asking.

Thomas had to explain that she was also a student and just as lost.

Eventually, though, Thomas hit her stride.

"I found myself acting as a mother to some of my classmates," she said. "It was my comfort zone."

Her favorite part of learning was conducting research for professors.

"I like that when you ask a question, you end up finding three more questions," Thomas said. "It really opens a lot of doors."

Now that she is finished at UC Merced, Thomas is starting to plan for a master's in criminal justice at Stanislaus. Before she starts that program, though, she will take a year off to spend time with her boys and, hopefully, continue work with the university as a full-time employee.

Nowadays, she's taking her middle son, Richard Thomas, on tours of college campuses.

"Even though I would always tell them, 'You are going to college,' I don't think it really sunk in until mom started going," she said.

One day, her son asked her how she defined "passion."

"When you wake up in the morning, and that's the first thing you think about and the last thing when you go to bed at night," she remembers telling him.

For Richard, that's basketball.

"For me, that's college," Thomas said.

Her other son, Derek, is involved with sports at Hoover Middle School.

Thomas never misses a game.

"I don't know how in the world she does it," said fellow sports mom Rosella Nelson. "She is a super good mom."

Nelson said Thomas always dresses the part as well, sporting the colors of her son's Golden Valley teams even though Thomas herself is a Merced Bear.

"She is always cheering," Nelson said. "She has a loud mouth."

Friends and family say there'll be a memorable bash in Thomas' honor after the May 16 ceremony.

Rob Camm, who has been a family friend for several years, said some 25 people will be attending a celebration at his home that evening.

"We feel this is the least we can do for her," Camm said, of he and his partner. "She is very special to us, our best friend. We love her dearly."

She may not even mind being mistaken for a professor.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or