For 30 years, she never quit on her college dream
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Rosemary Zuniga is set to graduate from college 30 years after she started as a single mother to a newborn.
“I’m very proud of her; she’s been going since I was a baby,” said daughter Mariah Bonjorquez, 30. “There were times she quit, but she always came back. She kept fighting to go back.”
Another generation also would be proud of Zuniga’s virtual Commencement for online learners on Saturday from Grand Canyon University.
Her mother, Katherine Spatafore, had a hard life, said Zuniga, 49, of Las Vegas.
Spatafore’s face was from abuse by alcoholic family members, and her pride was wounded when no one would hire her after she was let go from a hotel job in her 60s. But Zuniga always will remember a rare smile the day Spatafore graduated from College of Southern Nevada with two associate’s degrees at age 67.
“She was never happier than the moment she walked across that stage,” she said. “You could see it in her face.”
Spatafore’s last words prior to surgery for cancer were for Zuniga, who just weeks before had started online classes at GCU in 2018.
“Do not quit,” she told her. “This time has to be it.”
Her mother never spoke again.
It was never easy carrying on the promise.
Zuniga said she grew up poor in San Pedro, California, an accomplished high school soccer player and dancer who never considered college. No one in her family ever talked about college, and she didn’t think she was smart enough.
When she became pregnant with Mariah, she moved to Las Vegas. No one would hire a pregnant young woman, Zuniga said.
“When Mariah was a few months old and I’m on welfare, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted,” she said. “So I got a job and started college. I told myself I would graduate no matter how long it took.”
Zuniga took classes at a local community college and worked at a restaurant, then landed a job at MGM Grand as a cocktail waitress in the “high-roller room” and made good money.
But at age 28, she didn’t feel right. Although she was still athletic and in the best shape of her life, her unexplained pain finally was diagnosed as fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain.
That made it too taxing to work as a waitress while helping Mariah with her learning disability and taking college courses. She had to quit college, but she promised her young daughter that she would return someday.
It took eight years, but she eventually learned to manage the pain enough to resume studies.
“I learned how to deal with the disease. I thought, ‘OK, it’s time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and go back so you can get a job that won’t be so hard on your body.’”
Spatafore eventually followed in her footsteps at age 65.
“She also was told she was not smart enough, but my mom had one of those photographic memories and she graduated with straight As,” Zuniga said. “She didn’t learn algebra in high school, and watching her put in hours and hours to learn math, watching my mom not give up, it was like, ‘You have to do this. If you don’t, you are giving on yourself.’”
At one point three generations — grandma, mom and daughter — were all in the same community college math class.
“Mom had helped me with my learning disability,” said Mariah, who today manages a sandwich shop. “But the funny thing is, I helped her pass that class.”
Zuniga realized she had accumulated 144 college credits in various disciplines through the years and had become a champion of the value of learning. While an assistant soccer coach at Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas and an occasional substitute teacher, she realized she could pass that on to others fulltime when she heard about GCU.
“This is it. You don’t have any more chances, so you have to woman up,” she told herself. “This time I wouldn’t stop. My husband wouldn’t let me.”
She had married firefighter Mark Zuniga and had two more children – Mark, 14, and James, 13. He took the boys to sports practices so she could study for her GCU courses.
There was no quitting, even after her father and mother died just months apart of cancer, even after she had back surgery last year to correct the wear and tear of so many years of playing soccer and dancing.
She chose an Applied Management program at GCU because previous credits applied to that major enabled her to graduate more quickly. A bachelor’s degree allows her to enroll in an alternative route to licensure for teaching in Nevada and eventually study toward a master’s degree.
She wants to be an example for teens both on the field and in the classroom.
Push yourself to be the person you want to be, Zuniga tells them. There will be setbacks to your dreams, but don’t give up. You can’t give up on yourself.
“Sometimes you have to make that dream for yourself. You can’t expect others to bring that dream to you,” she said.
Zuniga promised her mom, daughter and husband that she would not quit, and after 30 years of ups and downs, she made that dream come true for herself.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.