Priscilla Santiago of Bridgeport, Conn., is a mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of five. At 63, she was also one of the oldest students to receive a bachelor's degree from Post University in 2011. Santiago left high school at 16 after a devastating sexual assault. Laid off from her job at age 59, she reinvented her life. She spoke with Huff/Post50 editor Laura Rowley. Here is her story in her own words:
I was 16 and living in Brooklyn and my stepfather raped me. My mom found out and sent me to Wisconsin to live with my father. He in turn raped me. He said, "If you tell your mother, it would kill her." I knew my mother had a heart problem, and I didn't want to be the cause of her death. So I had nowhere to go; I stayed there and was sexually abused by him for years. My sister had gone through the same thing, but we never talked about it until our 30s.
My father didn't put me in school. I waitressed. Eventually I was able to get back to New York and signed up with a temp agency and started taking jobs wherever I could. I got a job with Bayer pharmaceuticals in Connecticut as a forklift operator in the 1990s. I worked there for 18 years, until the plant was shut down in 2005. I was devastated because I thought I would be retiring from there. I was 59.
I went to the unemployment office and put in all the paperwork, and the guy at unemployment said, "As long as you're in school, unemployment will continue and pay for your education." I told him I didn't even have a high school diploma. He said, "Then we'll send you to get a one." I thought, '"Oh boy, at my age I'm not even going to remember half this stuff." But I got my GED and went back to unemployment, and they said, "You don't live that far from Housatonic Community College -- go sign up." And I was like, "College ... me?"
I felt crazy, but the young kids there, they didn't laugh at me or belittle me, and there were some people who were older. My kids, husband and sister in California encouraged me; they said, "You can do it, keep going, you can do it." I was taking three to four classes at a time, and I was on the dean's list the whole time.
After I got my associate's degree, I went to Post University. The teachers, students, advisers -- they all encouraged me. While I was there, my mom got very ill; I went to Virginia and stayed in the hospital with her for three weeks. I dropped one course but kept my other classes and my grades up, and my teachers let me email my stuff in online. My mom was proud of me and she felt bad that she had gotten sick and I wasn't in school. I said, "Mom, I’m going to stay with you, I promise I’ll graduate; I just want to be with you." Because I knew school would always be there and she wouldn't. I had to go back and take my final exams, and I said, "Mom, don't go anywhere, I’ll be back." But she passed on while I was gone. I was depressed, but I was still able to graduate with my class, and proud that I had succeeded.
When we were in our 30s, my sisters and I talked to our mom about what our father had done and she broke down so hard we never brought it up again. I couldn't talk to her about how it was affecting my relationships. I went to therapy for a while, and what helped was when one of therapists said, "That was when you were a child -- you're grown now, get over it." I decided I would deal with it on my own with the help of God. I forgave my father. Before he died, I went back to Wisconsin and I helped my stepmother take care of him for a little while because he needed to be bathed and changed. God forgives us all the things we do, and if I don't forgive, how can I expect Him to forgive me? I can't hold hostility and resentment in my heart. But I'll never forget.
I got a degree in human services because I want to help kids and others who experience abuse and violence, and are hiding behind the mask, thinking it's their fault and blaming themselves. My heart goes out to these people. If I could help one somebody out of that situation -- I would love to help many -- but if I could help one, then they can go and save someone else.
Right now I'm at The Workplace Inc. in Bridgeport, Conn. Our programs assist people in getting training and jobs -- veterans, disabled people, people whose unemployment has run out, people losing their homes. I'm not doing exactly what I want to do, but I thank God at least I'm doing something to help people in need.
I pray someone who is sitting at home thinking they can't do something will read my story. Everything happened for me from age 59 to 63. Don't tell me you're too old. You are never too old as long as you have breath in your body. It's never too late for you to do what you think you can't do. Every day God gives you the chance to do what you want with your life. Don't let insecurities prevent you from living out your dream.