By Gary Glancy for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
There was a time when it would have seemed improbable that Dena Gomez or her two daughters would ever be taking part in Converse College’s commencement ceremony. On May 17, all three were there together, celebrating an amazing and inspiring family journey.
Gomez, 42, not only was the interim director of Converse II — an undergraduate program for women 24 and older — she was a returning student about to accept her bachelor’s in elementary education. She also is a single mother of three, who works two other part-time jobs.
Graduating by Gomez’s side was her 21-year-old daughter, Desiree, with a bachelor’s in studio art. And waiting in the wings is Desiree’s 17-year-old sister, Sierrah, a Byrnes High School senior who will attend Converse in the fall as a biology major and soccer player.
In the midst of exam stress during the week of finals, Desiree did not have far to turn to look for a role model.
“It’s huge, obviously,” Desiree said of her mother’s inspirational influence. “I mean, I’m graduating and I barely have a part-time job, so I can only imagine how difficult it is. Yes, I’m a full-time student, but that’s completely different from being a mom, having three jobs, being a student, being the director of a whole department. And she’s a great mom. It’s not like she just slacks at all of it. She’s there when we need her.”
Dena, who also works in member services at the Spartanburg YMCA Middle Tyger branch and runs her own photography business, has been working in the Converse II program for 12 years. In fall 1999, following the birth of her third child, Moriah, Dena decided to continue her education to strengthen her ability to support herself and her children.
“It was scary for me,” she said, “because I had been out of high school for almost 20 years and I never went to college. I didn’t know if I was college material at the time. One of the first courses I took was English composition, and I felt like, because I had been out of school for so long, that I was in a foreign language class. It was a challenge. I found myself here in my office at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning with grammar books, just to teach myself what I needed to know in order to do the class, because I didn’t want anyone to know that I had no clue what (the instructor) was talking about.”
Dena, however, made a promise to her children that her education would not take away from her time with them. If anything, her relationship with them has grown. According to Dena, the three girls not only have never complained about her commitments outside the home but they also have supported her ambitions 100 percent.
Consequently, Dena has flourished in the classroom. She even loves English and grammar. Her return to the classroom also helped forge a closer working relationship with the other Converse II students she advises.
“This is what I do for a living. I advise older students about classes, and it helped me because I knew what position they were in,” Dena said. “I knew the f