Helen Dahman will take a short walk Sunday as she accepts her diploma from UC Merced. But the brief trek pales in comparison to the long-distance journey it took for her to ultimately complete her higher education.
Age isn’t important to Dahman, the oldest student to graduate from UC Merced. At age 73, she doesn’t anticipate a job to follow her freshly issued bachelor of arts degree in literature and cultures, but the diploma will be followed by an ambitious agenda to improve herself and members of her family.
“I rarely think about how old I am or how old anyone else is,” Dahman said. “What matters to me is how engaged, inquisitive and interesting a person is.”
Dahman, a Madera resident who was born in Merced and grew up on her father’s Chowchilla dairy farm, put a university degree on hold while she raised her two sons, now grown, and cared for her husband, Victor, when he suffered a major stroke 16 years ago.
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While she said she regarded her pursuit of a university degree somewhat like one would a job, her reasons for pursuing higher education go much deeper. For her it was about learning, something she said occurred constantly at UC Merced thanks to her professors and the brilliant young students surrounding her.
Dahman received an associate’s degree from the State Center Community College District’s Madera campus. About this time, UC Merced was being built, and she enrolled there seven years ago.
Sharon Meinhoff of Coarsegold, who taught a critical thinking class in philosophy at the Madera campus, called Dahman was a delightful student.
“She (Dahman) went above and beyond what was expected in class,” Meinhoff said. “She’s a bright-eyed, bright-spirited person, and there isn’t a teacher who wouldn’t want to have her in class.”
Dahman said she continued her schooling because she discovered she loved learning and it provided intellectual stimulation with interesting people, professors as well as students.
She especially enjoyed courses on African American literature and environmental literature.
“My professors have given me a passion for academics, hope and motivation,” Dahman said. “While for the most part unknowingly, these many professors have made easier the burden of my responsibility of carrying on the struggles of my private life, shaping me into an intellectually confident and determined person.”
With the degree in hand, Dahman said now she can finally pursue hobby interests that have been in the wings for many years. She loves to read and write, and enjoys genealogy, particularly tracing the roots of her family in Italy.
“My bookshelves hold the texts from every one of the courses I have taken over the past 15 years,” Dahman said. “I have enough reading from the various anthologies alone for years to come. The sight of these treasured texts brings instant and vivid reminders of the professors who taught them and all that I have learned.”
Dahman said she is reasonably fluent in the Italian dialect from the village of Mellarolo in the Lombardy region of Italy. But she said she is determined to master the mainstream Italian language. She has returned to Mellarolo many times and now visits with her Italian relatives through Skype.
“I especially loved the more creative writing assignments; we produced a magazine in a literature course,” Dahman said.
One of her university assignments was to write about a notable person in her life and she chose her father. Dahman later self-published a compilation of information about her father, the late Antonio “Tony” Rabbiosi. Born of Italian parents living in Uruguay, the adventurous Rabbiosi came to the United States in the early 1920s and purchased the dairy in the early 1930s along with his uncle.
Dahman took one or two classes each semester. She said she felt like she blended in easily with younger students and was accepted as just another classmate.
Her son, Nathaniel, a professor in the Merced College Music Department, said his mother has been a very dedicated wife and mother.
“It’s not about money or work,” Nathaniel Dahman said. “There’s no career pressure. She’s doing it for the love of it, and she definitely enjoyed it more. She’s an inspiration for me, too. She was determined to finish what she started.”
What’s next is another compilation of her mother’s proverbs and sayings, a project launched in the late 1990s, put aside for a while and resumed a year ago. Her mother, Onorina Zugnoni, left Italy in 1938 for the United States.
Dahman said she is uncovering details of her parents so that her sons, grandchildren and young nieces and nephews will learn about the family history – continue to learn and pass it on.