Townsquare/Dstillery pixel

Patricia O'Neill

Edmund A. LeFevre Professor of English

I am not sure this is an inspirational story. I think my eventual success in completing my BA had more to do with circumstances and luck than any personal virtues. While I had attended an all-girls Catholic Preparatory High School, the nuns were not particularly interested in preparing us for college. For career day, they invited an airline stewardess, a secretary and a nurse. This was 1968. Although neither of my parents had been to college, my father encouraged me to apply in order to gain what he called an M.R.S., preferably to an engineering student. So I applied to UCLA as a math major, without any pre-Calculus courses to prepare me.

The first year of college was tough academically. I had to take a not-for-credit English course because I blew the essay part of the entrance exam. Calculus was a nightmare and I dropped it after three weeks. But Italian was great fun, and I had had a good physics course in high school, which saw me through the college intro course. My life outside of class, however, became all-absorbing. By the second quarter, I left the sorority that my father had thought would be the gateway to social status, and instead I joined with other students who were working in a tutorial project for kids in a mixed race community near campus. The leaders of this tutorial project were brilliant, socially-engaged, and active in the civil rights and anti-war movements on campus. By third quarter, I was standing with other protesters outside the administrative building where UC Regents were meeting. Suddenly a battalion of LA police, armed with bayonets, moved against the crowd. People were fleeing in all directions. That night the students took over the administration building, and discussion of our demands and our outrage over the police action continued until dawn. Of course there was no way to return to normal student life.

I dropped out of school the middle of my sophomore year to continue political activity as a worker. I began work as a long distance operator in central Los Angeles and studied political thought with a group of friends who were determined to build student-worker alliances to stop the war and end racism and sexism in America. My parents were furious. I stopped all contact with them for five years. Then, at age 24, I went to Mexico to learn Spanish. I was upset with the way the phone company treated its large Spanish-speaking clientele. In Mexico, I met my husband. He had been in Mexico City during their more brutal repression of students in 1968. He had returned to his hometown and was working at a factory and taking classes at night. His loving influence and his family's, especially his mother's strong and caring attention, eventually brought about my reconciliation with my own family. Back in Los Angeles, married and working full time, I returned to school at California State University. I did not know if I could do the work after so many years of being away. But at this point I was hungry for books and intellectual talk. Two years later, I graduated with honors and a fellowship to Northwestern University. I was 30 years old.

Back to Top