This story was originally published in the Autumn 2008 edition of Saint Mary's magazine.
As one of the first women to enroll at the College, Yolande Rowe ’73 differed from most of her classmates. Starting at Saint Mary’s as a 42-year-old mother of two from Britain, however, came with a unique set of challenges.
When Rowe arrived as a junior in 1971, the College was still making adjustments after more than 100 years as an all-male institution (women’s restrooms were at a premium, she remembers). Still, she describes her transition to undergraduate life fondly.
“It was wonderful because kids really accepted me, even though in every class I was the only woman and I was old enough to be everyone’s mother,” she recalls.
Life at Saint Mary’s was certainly much easier than Rowe’s teenage years during World War II in Plymouth, England. On the frequent occasions German planes bombed her hometown, Rowe completed homework by lantern light in her basement. Standard adolescent challenges took on a more serious cast in a world where she served coffee to soldiers leaving for the front and classmates were killed in air raids.
Even during wartime, however, teachers and parents expected life to continue and commitments to be met.
“You learn there are no excuses for things not being done,” Rowe remembers. “The only excuse was being wounded or dead.”
After the war, Rowe immigrated with her family to San Francisco in 1949 following two years in Canada.
“It was like falling into a candy store,” she says of the American postwar cornucopia. “In England during the war, there was very little food.”
Settling down in the Bay Area, Rowe moved to Orinda in 1952 and started a family in the 60s. But after a divorce, she decided to finish her bachelor’s degree and earn a teaching credential. It wasn’t easy, with two young children at home. But with her mother’s encouragement and financial support, Rowe enrolled as a junior at Saint Mary’s in 1971.
Within her major of history, Rowe’s professors appreciated her sense of perspective as an atypical undergraduate, someone who’d both started a family and lived through a war in another country.
“Yolande added so much to class discussions,” says Ron Isetti, one of Rowe’s teachers. “Her memories of living as a young girl in the United Kingdom during the World War II bombings were particularly vivid and deeply affected her fellow students.”
For her senior year, Rowe decided to pay her own way, taking out $2,000 in student loans. A few days later and without any explanation, the Christian Brothers gave Rowe a partial scholarship.
“I still don’t know why they did it,” she says.
When Rowe graduated, starting a career as a California teacher proved difficult. As public school funding dipped during the mid-70s, jobs were scarce and Rowe bounced around between substitute teaching positions throughout Contra Costa County.
“Name a school and a grade — I probably taught there,” she notes.
At one point, an Orinda neighbor who worked as the American Presidential Line’s chief port engineer for worldwide fleet maintenance encouraged Rowe to apply to work in APL’s shipping container business. She got a job as assistant to terminal operations, providing a significant boost in pay and security for her family.
“At first, all I knew is that we were supposed to take stuff off ships and put stuff on,” she says. “But it ended up being a wonderful job for 17 years.”
Rowe’s duties at APL included working with the Defense Department to process re-commissioned ships from the Concord Naval Weapons Station for the 1991 Gulf War. APL also paid for her to return to Saint Mary’s for her Executive MBA, which she earned by working with the same steadfast study group for the balance of the 21-month program.
Now retired, Rowe is on campus every month for an event with Moraga Movers, a seniors’ organization which she helps organize. She’s given steadily to the College over the years and jokes that she thinks she owns a door to one of the buildings at this point.
“I’ve donated because of the experience I had at Saint Mary’s and the friends I made,” she says. “It was truly like a rebirth for me and I owe so much to my alma mater.”