After giving birth to a son as an undergraduate, J.C. Alvarez ’77 stayed in school, juggling the work of a student, mom, and wife. “While it’s not a journey I would recommend for everyone,” she says, “I knew it was the right journey for me.”
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Brett Tomlinson: When we spoke with J.C. Alvarez ’77 last June, she was attending Reunions for the first time, 40 years after graduating from Princeton. She explained that her college experience was quite different from that of her classmates.
J.C. Alvarez: I was from San Antonio. I was a very smart girl, but very poor and wanted to go to college. I was from a traditionally Mexican family. Girls didn’t go to college, much less go away to college, much less go away to Princeton. But I always knew that my life existed outside of the barrio, if you will. And somebody took me aside one day. It was the older sister of some classmates, and she said, “Well you’re really smart, you ought to go to the Ivy Leagues.” And, what was the Ivy Leagues? And she said, “They have money and they’ll help you.” So, I applied on the off chance. I got into Princeton and Yale and Harvard and Notre Dame and a lot of schools. So, I had this tremendous opportunity and I thought my folks would be so happy and they weren’t. (laughs) But that was a different time! You know for them, it was very hard for them to watch me break away from the traditional cultural things. But they finally — I talked them into one semester at a time. They let me come to Princeton, and I said “We’re just going to go one semester at a time. I can always come home.”
My roommate was from San Antonio and she had actually talked her parents into coming the same way. She was Hispanic, one of my roommates. And she said, “Yeah, that’s why I told my parents, one semester at a time.” She said, “I even told them one month at a time.”
BT: But all that is merely an introduction. Alvarez’s time at Princeton completely transformed in her sophomore year.
JCA: Basically, I got pregnant at the end of my sophomore year and I decided instead of having an abortion, I decided to have the baby. And so I decided I would keep going on. Which was unfortunately not a popular decision at the University. Let’s face it, women had been in — my class was the fourth class of women. So, they were already having a hard enough time with that, in that transition. And now they’ve got this pregnant student. And I was not little pregnant, I was big. It was sort of funny to even fit into the seats that were nailed into the ground. I’d have to always get the last seat and they just didn’t want me — it was sort of this visible reminder like, “Oh my gosh, this world is changing.” I think it was hard for them. I thought maybe I would take a semester off and they were — “Nope.” They said, “We’ll let you quit but we won’t let you take a semester off. We won’t let you take a year off.” Could I get an extension? “Nope. We’ll give you withdrawal papers but you can’t have an extension.” And I had my son the week before midterms the spring of my junior year. The funny thing is looking back on it now, I think it was — the fact that they made it so challenging made me more determined than ever to succeed. I thought, “Well you can try and break me, or you can try to get me to quit but I’m not gonna do it.” This was my opportunity and because I had made what they called a mistake — and it was, I wouldn’t recommend it everybody — I just decided that that was really — this was my opportunity. Both things were my opportunity. The baby was my opportunity and this education was my opportunity. So, it made me more determined than ever to succeed and as it turned out, that happened to be my best semester at Princeton. I got two A+’s, two A’s, and a B. So, I was like, “There you go.” And at that point, I was determined more than ever to finish.
There were actually two administrators who helped me, both of them in the Assistant Dean of Students’ office, Frank Ayala and Scott Seligman [’73]. And for some reason, they — well Frank was Hispanic and he had kind of understood how difficult this was for me, on multiple levels. He helped by getting me housing at Spelman. Scott helped me as well by talking me through some of the more difficult times. Scott and I are still friends to this day. And the other people who helped were classmates of mine. Sometimes I had a schedule of people who would help babysit for me. They would sit with Paul for an hour, and I would run down to class and run back. And I wish that those people I could thank every single one of them. Because it helped so much to have them say, “It’s OK, we’re going to help you get through this.” I talked to a couple of people last night when I was here at Reunions, and they said “You know what was so neat? It was when we would go to your house, it was real world. There was a baby, like our brothers or our sisters. It helped to keep us grounded to go to your house. So, we loved going there, even though you thought that we were helping you, you were actually helping us keep a foot in the real world.” So, those people really made a big difference in supporting me. They didn’t look at it as “Wow, that’s so strange.” They knew it was a challenge. All of them were very critical to my succeeding, for sure.
At that time, I was married. I had married the dad. And he was very traditional, he had come from a very traditional family so he was like, “Well you have to take care of the cooking and the cleaning and the baby and everything else.” And then he was focused on school, and that was the way it was, back in that time. So, my day was getting up and feeding him, and you know, running down and doing the laundry, and coming back and working on readings, and then running to class, and then coming back. Sometimes if a babysitter couldn’t come, I would have to put him in the little baby carrier. He was actually a very good baby. He would be quiet until 50 minutes in and he would start talking and the professor would say, “Is there a baby in this class?” (laughs) “Excuse me sir, I’ve got to go now.” So, it had a — it was sort of this dichotomy of being a student but having very much responsibilities in the real world. You know, making sure the baby was cared for and fed, and keeping a house, and a marriage or whatever, all of those traditional things. But I always wanted to be a mom. That was the funny thing, is that it was the one thing as a kid I always knew I wanted to be. So being a mom somehow never bothered me. It felt very right. It was just done in an unusual way.
As a student, I just remember wanting to get as much as I could out of my academics. But I also had to set a different bar for myself. I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, or the Pyne Prize winner, or whatever. I just wanted to be able to finish with a fairly decent record. But I had to say to myself, “There’s only so much you can do because you have this balance in your life that you have to keep.”
There was a lot of shame associated with my Princeton experience 40 years ago. I used to apologize, because I had been a mom and a student and I had gotten pregnant and everything else. Forty years later — 40 years ago, everybody said “This is a huge mistake, you will never be successful. You are guaranteeing that you will be a failure in your life. Within 10 years you’ll be selling pencils on a street corner like a dumb Mexican girl.” Well, 40 years later I can look back and say, “Nope, it wasn’t a mistake.”
I knew that, while it’s not a journey I would recommend for everyone, I knew it was the right journey for me and it was a mistake that wasn’t. I got to determine what was going to be a mistake. And I got to work to change my destiny and my son’s destiny. And Princeton, having that foundation, I realized for the good and the bad was the core; that was the seed from which this amazing life grew. Having this education as my core, changed my future. And having that baby changed my future. And they could both coexist in this same life.
BT: Our thanks to J.C. Alvarez for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.
If you have a Princeton story you’d like to share, please let us know. You can email the Princeton Alumni Weekly at firstname.lastname@example.org.