When she was born in 1915, the great battles of World War I were raging in Europe. In America, the first bricks of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC were being laid. She endured the Great Depression of the 1930s and lived through yet another world war: World War II.
Today, Hazel Soares is making her own piece of history, since at the age of 91 she is Mills’ oldest resuming student.
“I’m almost as old as the school!” Soares joked. “I figure I will be a hundred before I get the degree, and by that time I may not be capable of walking!”
At 57, Terry McBride is Soares’ eldest daughter and most avid supporter. In 1995, she helped her mother pursue her dream of finishing her education by helping her enroll at Chabot College.
Then in the fall of 2007, when her mother enrolled at Mills as an art major, McBride attended classes with her on her first day.
“By the end of the day, people were greeting her by her name, to me that was reassuring,” said McBride.
Soares received an associate degree from Chabot College in Humanities in 2000 with the intention of becoming a research librarian. However, the school later canceled the program.
On her first impressions of Mills, Soares seems to welcome the college’s tight-knit community. “This particular campus has a small family way of keeping in touch with each other,” said Soares. “You are personally involved with your instructor, and to me, that’s just charming.”
Moira Roth, Soares’s art professor at Mills, said she ran into Soares at an exhibit in San Francisco and saw her intensely studying the exhibition on the Vietnam War through contemporary art. “She is possessed by marvelous curiosity as well as a fine intelligence and intellectual energy,” she said.
Soares was born and raised in the Bay Area, living primarily between Oakland and San Leandro. Her desire to go to college dates back to when she graduated from Roosevelt High School in Oakland in 1932, now a junior high school.
She recalled that the Great Depression hit the country during the 1930s, and most people didn’t go to college then because it wasn’t affordable.
Instead, Soares joined a training program to become a nurse, and then worked in a tuberculosis sanatorium for a few years until she left to marry and start a family. When her husband suddenly passed away only nine years later, Soares was left with three small children, no money and no job.
“It was such a shock,” she said. “I had to put it into the back of my mind just to survive day by day.”
Soares and her three children went to live with her sister. Soares later did clerical work for the federal government until she was able to get a place of her own.
A few years later, Soares remarried and had another three children. The couple now raised seven children, including a daughter her husband had from a prior marriage. “It was pretty hectic,” she said.
One of the family’s joys was working in their “huge garden” where they grew vegetables, including tomatoes, which they canned and distributed to family members. “We called it the Soares free market,” she said.
The pair was married for 55 years until he passed away in 2003. A few years after, she made the decision to return and finish her education at Mills.
“I have such a vital character for a mother,” said McBride. “She is learning how to use a computer for the first time at 91!”
Just before coming to Mills, Soares and her daughter McBride went on a river rafting excursion in Washington. She said she had been planning it for over 20 years and that it was one the greatest times she has ever had. Soares is now equally as excited to continue a whole new adventure at Mills.
“She is determined to finish college, and we are all supportive!” said McBride.
“I think it just gets richer,” said Soares. “The more you learn, the more you want to learn.”