Eleonor Castillo adjusts her father's cap at a reception at Sacramento State, honoring students who completed their bachelor's degree through a long-distance program. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)At 75, Rodolfo Castillo is Sacramento State's oldest graduate in the Class of 2016. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Rodolfo Castillo joins his classmates at a reception on campus, just hours before their commencement ceremony. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Rodolfo Castillo, 75, plans to teach preschool for five more years. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Students in the San Diego-based cohort of the child development degree completion program pose for photos, and for some, it's their first visit to the Sac State campus. (College of Continuing Education/Sharon Ito)Child development instructor Idara Essien-Wood (far right) taught the cohort's night classes in San Diego during the three-year degree completion program. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Preschool teacher Glinda Copridge was often Rodolfo Castillo's partner in class projects. (College of Continuing Education/Sharon Ito)"If Mr. Rudy could do it, I could do it," says preschool teacher Glinda Copridge, who saw Rodolfo Castillo as her inspiration to complete her bachelor's degree. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Rodolfo Castillo and his classmates gather for a photo inside Sleep Train Arena, after walking through their commencement ceremony and receiving their bachelor's degree. (College of Continuing Education/Sharon Ito)Rodolfo Castillo joins instructor Idara Essien-Wood and classmate Glinda Copridge for a final photo after their commencement ceremony at Sleep Train Arena. (College of Continuing Education/Sharon Ito)Two cohorts in the child development distance learning program graduated in May; Rodolfo Castillo's group in San Diego and a second cohort based in Galt, led by instructor Aileen Lord, holding the flowers. (College of Continuing Education/Risa Knight)Rodolfo Castillo enters Sleep Train Arena for the College of Education Commencement ceremony. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)Rodolfo Castillo heads to his seat during the Commencement ceremony. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen asked the military veterans in the Class of 2016 to stand. Rodolfo Castillo served in the Vietnam War to escape poverty in the Philippines and became a U.S. citizen. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)Rodolfo Castillo meets Professor Caroline Turner, Administrator-in-Charge, College of Education, as he walks through the commencement line and accepts his bachelor's degree. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Rodolfo Castillo: 75 Years in the Making
Oldest Student in Class of 2016 Graduates with Honors

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Update: The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) has named Mr. Rodolfo Castillo the 2017 Outstanding Continuing Education Student, following a nationwide search. In 2016, the UPCEA West Region honored him with the Outstanding Nontraditional Student Award.

In his nomination letter, Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen called Mr. Castillo an inspiration and ”the personification of what it means to fight for your dreams and persevere through challenges.”  UPCEA is the leading association for professional, continuing and online education.  

As he went about his custodial duties Rodolfo Castillo would notice the preschool teachers, how they taught a lesson and held a four-year-old’s attention, how they comforted a child in need and nurtured self-control. “I want to study what they’re doing,” he told himself, “and I want to do the same thing.”

He knew he had a lifetime of experience as an immigrant, an English language learner, and a U.S. Navy veteran. And he knew he could give them something extra in the way of “fatherly advice and a grandfather’s advice, too.”

“exemplifies everything that is important and good about immigration” – Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen 

This father of four and grandfather of six enrolled in a long-distance degree program through Sacramento State, which he completed while living and working in San Diego. In fact, just hours before the commencement ceremony, Castillo stepped foot on the campus for the first time. “It will be a wonderful moment for our family when he crosses that stage,” said his daughter Eleonor Castillo. Along with Eleonor, Castillo’s wife, youngest son and a grandson flew to Sacramento for the ceremony.

Castillo graduated with honors, magna cum laude, with his bachelor’s degree in child development. President Robert S. Nelsen spoke of Castillo’s journey during the College of Education commencement on May 20. “A story that I can hardly believe,” he told the audience.

“Mr. Rodolfo Castillo is from the Philippines and he joined the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War,” Nelsen explained. “Mr. Rudy, as the children call him, is from San Diego…and for the last three years he’s been working in an elementary school during the day while taking classes at night at age 75.”

Castillo, as the oldest graduate in the Class of 2016, plans to teach preschool for another five years, and as an immigrant “exemplifies everything that is important and good about immigration,” Nelsen said.

Castillo left behind poverty in the Philippines and by serving in the navy became eligible for U.S. citizenship. During his tour of duty he survived a gun battle off Vietnam and “discrimination in the armed forces,” according to Castillo, with menial jobs doled out because of his skin color. Yet he endured, says Eleonor, because “like other immigrants, my parents came to this country with hope.”

After a 28-year career in the navy and not yet ready to retire, Castillo applied for a job in the San Diego Unified School District, where he started as a custodian. In 2007, he earned an associate degree and was welcomed aboard as a preschool teacher. “I give them warm affection just like a parent,” he says, and his wife Elvira agrees he’s good with children. “He’s so mellow. He sits with them and he cares for them. It makes a difference.”

Yet teaching opportunities were passing him by, largely due to the Head Start program requiring a bachelor’s degree for preschool applicants. So while others his age were already retired, Castillo, in his 70s, went back to school.

“Rudy has done extremely well redefining how we can achieve our dreams” – Professor Idara Essien-Wood

“It was a challenging journey for him,” says Eleonor, who started her own teaching career at the same elementary school where her father now works. English is Castillo’s second language and Tagalog his first. Castillo remembers how the academic writing was “too rigorous and difficult to do” in the beginning, how he often read assignments three or four times “so it will stay in my brain.” Some nights he only got a few hours of sleep, staying up late doing homework.

On a particularly challenging assignment Castillo finally confided to his daughter, “I’m so old. I can’t do this.” And just as she’s done with her college students, Eleonor coached him through his research and writing. “You have to do it,” she encouraged him, “and you’ll find a way to do it differently.” She didn’t give him the answers either, but flipped the situation around and asked him: “What do you say to a child who is frustrated?”

Child development professor Idara Essien-Wood taught the classes in San Diego and supplemented the videotaped lectures by Sac State faculty. Castillo’s immigrant journey “is beyond beautiful,” she says. “Rudy has done extremely well redefining how we can achieve our dreams,” and in him she discovered “a compassionate and loving person and very welcoming. Kids feel that.”

“If Mr. Rudy could do it, I could do it” – Classmate Glinda Copridge

A classmate, Glinda Copridge, worked in the same school district as Castillo. “We don’t have many men teachers and he’s quite effective in the class,” she says. “Children really listen to Mr. Rudy. They find him interesting like a grandfather figure.” Castillo is at least 30 to 45 years older than everyone else in the class, and Copridge would sometimes remind herself, ”If Mr. Rudy could do it, I could do it.”

Earning a college degree was truly a family affair. Castillo’s wife earned her nursing degree years ago. His two sons graduated from West Point, one of his daughters from Point Loma Nazarene University, and Eleonor is working on her doctoral degree in education policy at the University of Maryland. Castillo has now completed the circle, the final member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. “It’s what he’s always wanted,” says grandson Alejandro Armendariz, a college freshman at UC Irvine, who attended the ceremony.

“Children come first in the Filipino culture,” says Eleonor, and “my parents sacrificed to get us through college.” Now her father can finally say, “It’s my time.” 

For more information, please visit the Bachelor of Arts in Child Development degree completion program web page. -Sharon Ito