Mark Wiggins, Jr. is on the verge of joining the ranks of three generations of Wiggins family CSUN alumni, but he will not be the only Wiggins receiving a diploma this semester.
In less than two weeks, Mark will be graduating together with his grandmother, something that sets him apart from most other soon-to-be graduates.
At 23, he has a good thing going. As a paid intern at an Encino law firm, Mark has also been afforded the luxury of having a strong, supportive network of friends and family – including a girlfriend of two and a half years.
The past couple of years he has spent as a CSUN undergrad have not been in vain. As a student of political science, the former Crescenta Valley High School grad is set to earn a bachelor’s degree later this month. With multiple stints on the dean’s list and visions of law school on the horizon – he is crossing his fingers for USC – Mark’s optimism toward the future is not only evident through his positive attitude, but also obvious through his academic achievement.
Graduating at the same time as his grandmother is something special to Mark.
“She’s 40 years older than me, but we can still talk about midterms and finals,” he said on a recent sunny December morning. “We can discuss literature and political thought, things most people normally would not be discussing with a grandparent.”
Mark speaks with great admiration for his grandmother, a woman he will soon be able to say he had the pleasure of graduating from the same college with.
As the oldest of Maureen Wiggins’s grandchildren, Mark feels inclined to do everything he can to the best of his ability.
Maureen has raised 10 children. They range in age from 18 to 44. Her children, so far, have in turn given their mother a total of 19 grandchildren. They range in age from 23 (Mark) to the youngest, a five-month-old.
All family members aside, Maureen is thrilled to also be earning a bachelor’s degree in English. She is also slated to graduate with honors. As a grandmother and student, Maureen also has her sights set on the future. A future which she hopes will involve teaching English to either junior high or high school students.
Mark characterized CSUN as a college of choice for many of his family members.
“We’ve always been kind of a CSUN family,” he said, referencing proximity and price as incentive enough to per say an education at what is one of the San Fernando Valley’s only four-year universities. “Cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and now grandparents have all gone to CSUN,” Mark said.
Maureen’s path toward higher education was much more gradual than her grandson’s. Mark elaborated.
“She always had the zest for (education) but never had the time or resources,” Mark said. “Once my grandfather died and the children grew up, she had time on her hands and decided to go back.”
Maureen offered her own insight into the life journey she has so diligently led.
“I must have had a lot of energy,” she said, while recently reflecting on her years, and their steady lead up to college life. Maureen cited her duties as a wife and homemaker, community volunteer and a position in a Catholic Church, in which she served as director of religious studies from 1975 to 1981, as various past duties.
It was her work with low-income, Spanish-speaking-only public school students that fueled her drive to eventually want to teach English – a goal currently in motion.
“People should feel comfortable in the language that they want, but professionally you need to speak, and understand why you speak English,” she said.
Two deaths in the family served as the catalyst that sparked Maureen’s convergence with college. In 2000, Maureen learned that not only her mother, but also her husband of nearly 40 years would both have to battle cancer.
“I started taking care of them while attending school. I needed a release from the pressure. It was psychological pressure,” she said in recounting the method in which she coped with watching her loved ones suffer.
Maureen first enrolled at Los Angles Mission College.
“I decided to go back to school to get out of the house and become a paralegal. I graduated cum laude from that program,” she said. The program consisted of 32 units in courses like family and business law.
After the 2002 death of both her husband and mother – in order for the grieving process to takes its place – Maureen’s course work was put on hold. She touched on the day of her loss.
“He died of colon cancer and my mother passed away 15 hours later of breast cancer,” she said.
In a memorial service, both loved ones were remembered at the San Fernando Mission. Maureen’s oldest son, Walter Wiggins Jr., a Los Angeles business attorney, said over a phone call that while both deaths were sad and tragic, the death of his father, Walter Wiggins Sr., was much more unexpected.
“My father was in remission,” he said. “On the day he collapsed he had been doing vigorous yard work. I came by, talked and had a cup of coffee with him. A few hours later he collapsed. It took me a while to put together the fact that his death was due to the cancer. The timing and swiftness was a real shock,” he said.
Maureen and her family stayed strong while grieving the loss of their loved ones. “You still have to be optimistic,” Walter Jr. said. “Life is about good times and bad times. It’s a question of perspective and how you embrace opportunities and grow.”
Maureen eventually shifted her time back to her studies. She finished her paralegal courses, worked – and upon certification – once again took on the familiar task of volunteer work. She delved into her work at not only a worker’s rights program in Pacoima, but also Chrysalis in Pacoima, a non-profit dedicated to helping the economically disadvantaged and homeless.
As much as Maureen cherishes her volunteer work, it was her life-long passion of the English language that eventually led her to the very CSU that so many of her family members were familiar with.
Besides playing a grandmother, Maureen – for the first time in her life – is now free of what had been her traditional family responsibilities. She has used her newfound freedom in order to bore down and dedicate herself to her studies. She said CSUN classes have been eye-opening, and that she is thankful to be taking them at her age.
“There’s something to be said about looking at the world that has passed you by,” she said. “When you are young, views are acquired and you are comfortable with them. That’s that and you stay there, but when you go to school with young people, hear their views, listen to their speech and read their books, a whole new world opens up to you.”
In harnessing her education thus far, Maureen said she feels as though she has benefited “more than anyone else in the class.”
She cited the literature from a recent modernist class as an example of writings she would never have thought to have read on her own.
While Maureen said she did not particularly agree philosophically with some of the writings, she did, however, appreciate seeing the literary shift from a Christian to a secular point of view.
Love for literature
Maureen has always been an avid reader. Mark said during the 20-year period while his grandmother was pretty much consistently pregnant; she used to average reading more than 75 books per year.
Maureen spoke enthusiastically about what she said is an advantage she has had in learning. She has never been known to repress critical thought within the classroom. Maureen cited a Chicano/a studies course in which she told the professor there was something wrong because the assigned readings were “steeped in Marxism.” Her professor had no qualms admitting in front of his class that the term “Chicano” was indeed a political label. As a Mexican-American, Maureen said she rejects that sort of politicizing.
favorite courses was English 406, to which she attributes her essay writing skills to being greatly improved. Overall, Maureen thinks CSUN has a strong English program with a knowledgeable faculty.
Maureen’s daughter, Heidi Paulson, is also a CSUN alumna. Recently married, and now raising a baby girl of her own, Paulson said she is excited about her mother’s rich life of accomplishments.
“She’s been a diligent mother of 10,” she said. “She has waited her whole life after making sure we were all educated in order to go back and do it herself.”
Paulson is also scheduled to move on with her own academic career, and ultimately – just like her mother – aspirations of teaching. With an undergraduate degree in English, she will apply this spring alongside her mother to CSUN’s teacher credential program. But before entering education, the pair plans on moving on to the same CSUN master’s program.
“CSUN has been a vehicle that has educated three generations. The tools are at your finger tips, you just have to get it,” Paulson said.