Student Spotlight

70-year-old grandmother graduates, inspires others

September 20, 2015
The Monterey Campus held a special reception for Diana and her family. See her story in this video.

The Monterey Campus held a special reception for Diana and her family – watch the video for more about her story.

Diana Dennis inspires with words, with actions, with gentle hugs, with songs, with photographs, with stories.

The list of exactly whom she’s inspired seems endless. Dennis, who graduated summa cum laude this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies from Brandman University’s Monterey campus at the age of 70, has run a child care business in her home in Pacific Grove for more than 30 years. By some estimates, she’s had a hand in teaching half the kids in the community at Diana’s House Day Care for Children.

Parents have learned as well. “I want to be like her. She sets an example of how to live your life,” said Ping Yin, who considers it one of the luckiest days of her life when she found Diana’s House for her two young children. “She’s driven, always curious. She takes everything in life as a learning experience.”

Working with children came naturally to Dennis although it wasn’t necessarily what she set out to do. She was a young mother at home when other people began to ask her if she would take care of their children during the day.

“Along the way I realized I didn’t just want to babysit. So I got my license and did the things you’re supposed to do,” said Dennis.

“I was always good with kids … it’s not hard for me. I kind of thought every mom could do that and have a career and I could only do what every mom could do,” she said. It took her awhile to realize that not everyone can do what she does.

Watch her in action with children and you see somebody who listens, laughs and guides with seemingly boundless energy. At story time, she doesn’t just read the stories, she stops and points out colors and encourages questions.

Even as she leads visitors through her house, she stops to soothe a worried child, wipe a nose and listen to a 3-year-old’s observations about the day.

Dennis also inspired her fellow students at Brandman with her eagerness to not just learn, but to truly master each subject.

“I loved being a student,” said Dennis, who said her classmates sometimes joked about how many questions she asked or how thoroughly she knew the reading material. “I feel like I’ve been a student a long time, but this (Brandman) was a step up.”

Her college career started when she began taking early childhood education classes at the community college. Originally she had no intention of earning a degree. She just wanted to know more.

“I took every course I could get my hands on,” she said. When an instructor encouraged her to pursue her associate degree, she discovered other classes. “There were guys in there and there was no snack! And I though, oh goodness, I’m in real school now.”

The Monterey campus presented her with a special Achievement award.

The Monterey campus presented her with a special Achievement award.

A college night event introduced her to Brandman and she was impressed with the quality of the presentation compared to other universities. She decided to complete her bachelor’s, spreading it out over four years that also included a few sessions off for travel.

As much as she loved her classes, she had her share of challenges, particularly statistics. “But Dr. Stanley, oh my gosh, he was the most wonderful teacher. He gave us his home phone so we could contact him. I got a tutor, but I did the work myself and guess what, it ended up I had the highest grade in the class,” she said, admitting she poured her all into it.

Those challenges help her relate to her former charges, now teenagers or older, who still stop by and even help out with her day care. She knows how to encourage them and can point to the diploma hanging in the sunny book-filled room where child play as proof that academic and other challenges can be overcome with persistence.

While the day care center consumes much of her time, it’s not her only passion. She’s also a photographer and author. “Cannery Row 1965: A time in between” includes photos, poetry and prose about a joyous period in her life exploring the abandoned canneries with a young man from the Defense Language Institute.

Notecards and calendars feature her photographs from monarch butterflies to river scenes from China.

It all adds up to a sentiment echoed by the staff and faculty at Brandman and said best by Pin, “The world is a better place because of Diana.”

Learn more

Diana Dennis got her degree in Liberal Studies with an emphasis on culture and media because Brandman wasn’t offering a degree in early childhood education when she started. That major is now available and more information can be found here.

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