Mired in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, Lydia Razo had heard her husband say that she was just a workhorse. She felt trapped in the bottom of a dark pit.
For the final seven years of her 24-year marriage to an abusive and controlling man, Razo searched for a way out for her and her five children.
“He hurt me and my children in many ways, but eventually I decided to leave him,” she said, “It wasn't easy, but he finally left a hole where I managed to slip out and get away.”
In 2001 at age 51, Razo discovered it’s not too late.
After getting help from a shelter for battered and abused women, Razo started her life in the sun. To support herself, she cleaned houses.
“I was gathering aches, then started to get educated in a class about battered and abused women, I realized what happened to me. They told me, ‘You need an education to give you the confidence to be more than an ache gatherer,’” she said. “I had very poor self-esteem, I was constantly beaten down.”
A new friend encouraged her that it wasn’t too late, that she could go to school.
The first day of classes at Rich Mountain Community College in Mena, Razo shook with fear. Sweat poured off the terrified woman as she struggled to complete simple tasks.
“I didn’t know how to start a computer, didn’t know anything, it was so, so hard,” she said.
But she didn’t quit.
In three years, Razo earned an associate degree in business administration.
“I had never thought about what I wanted to be, you don’t think of those things. So the first thing that came to mind was to be a secretary,” said Razo with a laugh. “Education opens your mind. It gives you choices. It makes you think better about yourself. It makes you think better about others. Education is the best thing that can happen to a person.”
While studying at the community college, Spanish quickly became her favorite class. Razo earned a certificate for having the highest grade in Spanish.
“I strived to make a high grade in Spanish, it was so important,” she said.
As a third generation Mexican-American, Razo had lost touch with her heritage. She hadn’t spoken Spanish since she was a child, and then it had mainly been slang. But now she loved learning the language. Excelling in Spanish class led her to a job opportunity in Waldron as a paraprofessional working with Spanish speaking students. After completing English as a Second Language training, a former instructor who became the principle for a school in Wickes offered Razo a job and raise with the school. During four years at Wickes, Razo worked with Spanish speaking students and helped the school’s literacy test scores rise from 14 percent to 65 percent passing.
“I thought, ‘God, I would love to be a teacher,’” Razo said.
It’s never too late to have a new goal.
She took the core classes she would need to start the education program one by one while working at Wickes. Then at 60, Razo left Mena, and started her new adventure by attending Texas A&M University - Texarkana.
“I didn’t know how I was going to stay; I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I know I wanted to be a teacher,” Razo said, “I was so nervous, but, by golly, I was going to go, so I went.”
Razo asked a nearby school, Texarkana College, for a place to live, and ended up with a job as the dorm supervisor.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He hired me right on the spot. I said, ‘Sir, I will be the best worker ever.’”
She earned several raises in her job, and top marks as an English major. Then Razo’s son, who lived in Fayetteville, was in a car accident with his son. Razo’s grandson’s skull had been crushed and he needed brain surgery. She gave her two weeks’ notice and left Texas.
“My family is more important than anything else in the world. So I went to Fayetteville,” Razo said.
After caring for her son and grandson, she attempted to attend the University of Arkansas, but eventually left. She returned to Waldron and worked in the school for three years before she retired at the age of 66.
In 2014, Razo decided it’s never too late to finish her education. She enrolled at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
“Oh I love it! I love clubs, I love Fort Smith, and I thank God every day for my education,” she said, “because education has brought me to a point that I appreciate life.”
Razo participates in clubs, excels in class, and works as a tutor in her spare time.
“We call her ‘abuelita,’” said Professor Rosario Nolasco-Schultheiss. “It’s a term of endearment given only to those who embody the best traits a grandmother and matriarch in our society possess: wisdom, generosity, compassion, willingness to help, and much, much love.”
Bill Yates, director of the Gordon Kelley Academic Success Center, called Razo a good role model.
“She can help them with more than just Spanish. Even after all she has been through her enthusiasm and positive attitude teach students to keep moving forward,” he said.
Razo helped start the Spanish club, is a member of student government, is the membership coordinator for non-traditional students, and is in the Pinnacle Honor Society.
On a fall afternoon as seniors gathered to prepare for graduation, most admitted to an uncertainty about the future. They moved through Gradfest with equal parts excitement and fear. But Razo graduating with a bachelor’s in general studies, walks with excitement and radiates confidence.
“I know exactly what I can do now and I didn’t know that before,” she said.
Razo will graduate with her Bachelors in general studies, December 10, 2015, at 7 p.m.
“The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith has embraced me, and they can count on me that I have embraced them back,” she said. “This ole 67-year-old grandma is going to do it, I’m going to graduate, because I want my children, and my grandchildren, and anyone that’s interested to see it’s never too late, it’s never too late to change your life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s worth it.”