On Saturday, a few months away from her 70th birthday, Renee Dunn proudly received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literary and Intercultural Studies, achieving a goal she has sought to achieve while working, raising a family, and volunteering to help others.
“School gave me a carrot stick to do something for myself,” she says.
In the Spring of 2020 Renee transferred from College of Marin into Dominican University of California’s Adult Degree Completion (ADC) program. Her first class was a literature, language, and humanities class with Bobby Bradford, an adjunct professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Education. She subsequently enrolled in more than a dozen classes at Dominican and juggled those with classes she was taking at College of Marin where, this fall, Renee will earn a fifth Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts.
“I want my education to open me up to opportunities that I might not even have thought about,” Renee says. “It’s those people who you encounter during your educational processes who may say `I think you’d be great to do this’ or `Why don’t you come work with me’.”
Renee has been an adventurer all her life. After she graduated in 1971 from St. Sebastian High School in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago near Wrigley Field, Renee visited the San Francisco Bay Area for a while before returning to Chicago to attend Harry S. Truman College. She was studying art history and the humanities until a friend from New Zealand invited her on a 16-country trip through Europe. They drove and lived on a double-decker bus starting in Calais, France.
Eventually Renee’s life path took the more traditional route and led her back to San Francisco where she began a career and started a family. Renee and her husband bought a house in San Rafael then moved to San Anselmo where her son, Michael, attended San Domenico School. Based on her love of art, Renee volunteered in the school’s art classes from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Soon Renee got the itch to go back to school.
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“I loved school. I loved learning. Then I read an article in a paper or magazine and it was about older people going back to school and getting their college degree,” Renee says. “One of them said he had unfinished business. That struck a deep chord with me.”
Renee decided to “put my toe in” and started taking classes at College of Marin. In one class she befriended Joanne Schov of Mill Valley who had taken classes at COM before going to Dominican where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 2000. Renee was inspired to dive deeper into higher ed.
“I had one of those “aha” moments. I’m sitting at the kitchen table thinking `I should go back to school now and take some more classes … Classes? Go get your degree.’ Yes. That’s it. That’s what I did,” Renee says. “So, I’m following Joanne’s footsteps.”
Renee was introduced to Dr. Leslie Ross, professor and chair of Art History and Visual Studies at Dominican where one of Renee’s first assignments was to write the essay “The Art of the Posters” because Renee and her husband had a collection of early 1900s French liquor posters. Renee shared those ad posters with Dr. Ross, who gave her guidance on writing her first Portfolio project. Renee subsequently attended two art history courses with Dr. Ross which rekindled her love of art history.
“I couldn’t have been more delighted to have her in class,” Dr. Ross says. “She was an absolutely fantastic student and I thoroughly enjoyed having her in class and I think the younger students did too. She was always reliable and available to answer questions and give her perspective.”
In addition, Renee penned a second essay for portfolio units entitled “Third-Generation Polonia Amerykańska” and later used the accumulated family history by putting it in a narrative context for her capstone project.
Renee has developed into a better writer through classes with Thomas Burke and Joan Baranow. Burke is an adjunct professor in Literature, Language and the Humanities and Dr. Baranow is founder of Dominican’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
“They were instrumental in helping me and influencing me in how to write,” Renee says. “Dominican helped me begin a deep dive into my ancestry which became my capstone, a series of historical fiction short stories based on my Polish grandmother. This will turn into a much larger writing project, hopefully a book based on my family members which I have never met because they died long before I was born. I enjoy the hunt in history.”
Renee dug deep into her capstone project – “Mary, My Polish Grandmother” – which she wants to turn into a book to pass on to the next generations of the family. Renee has researched her Chicago Polish roots back to Oklahoma where her grandfather was a coal miner who died of black lung disease during the Great Depression, leaving her grandmother with eight children, including two sets of twins. Her grandmother considered giving the youngest twins up for adoption but found that people wanted to adopt only one of the twins and not both. Renee’s grandmother refused to separate the twins and found help from her husband’s half-brother who moved the whole family to Chicago.
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“It’s all those little pieces of a puzzle to help me understand what the world is about because you have to understand what it was about,” Renee says. “Again, old interests are put on the shelf, dusted off and put on the front burner now that I have time after working many years and after dedicating myself to motherhood. One never knows.”
Though Renee has entertained the possibility of going for a master’s degree in art history, Commencement at Dominican will represent the culmination of her career-changing journey. She is expecting a crowd of about 20 neighbors and friends to attend a celebratory post-Commencement lunch, including her best friend, Gail Baty, whom she has known for nearly 39 years since they started working together in the same office in San Francisco as administrative assistants for Kingsley, Jennison, McNulty and Morse, an investment adviser company.
As she walks to the stage to receive her diploma at Dominican, Renee might pause and allow herself a moment of reflection. She has been going to college practically non-stop for the past eight years.
“At this point, it has nothing to do with getting a degree,” she says. “It’s an achievement.”