Newswise — GLASSBORO, NJ --

You think you’re busy? Meet Teresa Soca.

From January through May 2018, she never got home between Wednesday nights and late Friday afternoons, sleeping a few hours in her car; washing up and changing clothes where she could; eating a Thursday night dinner dropped off by her significant other, Scott, of maybe pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans.

This was back when she attended Rowan College at Burlington County (New Jersey), a step in her path – her very intense path – to earn her R.N.-to-B.S.N. during Commencement ceremonies this May from Rowan University’s School of Health Professions. (Soca will graduate on Monday, May 13.)

Her schedule last spring semester basically played out like this:

From 9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays to 6:15 a.m. on Thursdays, she worked at her main job at BrightView Senior Living in Mount Laurel as a resident assistant.

She then went to Virtua Health System in Marlton on Thursdays for her academic clinical rotation from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., first washing and changing into her school uniform in a BrightView bathroom and later eating breakfast and lunch in the Virtua cafeteria.

Then she reported from 1:15 to 5:15 p.m. to her part-time job (Monday to Friday) as a personal home health aide in Moorestown.

After work, she attended a pathophysiology class from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

She returned to BrightView on Thursday evenings, catching limited shuteye in her Mazda 5 from around 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and then washing and dressing in her BrightView uniform before pulling a shift from 9:45 p.m. on Thursday to 6:15 a.m. on Friday.

On Fridays, she went back to Virtua for another academic clinical rotation from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., then back to her part-time job in Moorestown, and then she finally went home to sleep a little until she was due to return back to BrightView.

And there’s more

And at the time of this oh-so-hectic schedule? She was 50 years old, a mother of five (three girls and two boys, ages 30 to 8) and a grandmother of five (three girls and two boys, ages 11 to 2).

Enrolled in Rowan University’s 3+1program, Soca hasn’t let up much in her time at the University. Last semester she took six classes. This semester she took four. All were online, yet she still carefully regulated her time. Because those two jobs? She still has them.

Things are a little easier these days. Her full-time job as a registered nurse at Hampton Behavioral Health Center in Westampton runs from 9:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m., and then she takes her youngest son, Edward, and sometimes her grandchildren to school. She goes home to shower and then sleep from 8:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.; works her part-time job from 1 to 5 p.m.; returns home and showers, does her homework until 7:30 p.m. and sleeps from 7:30 to 9 p.m. – and then starts the cycle all over again. On days off, she studies and takes quizzes and tests.

“If I sleep four hours, I’m good,” said Soca, who fuels up on coffee.

Soca’s story, and by all means it is a success story – she is graduating with honors – is a complex one.

Born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay in South America, she immigrated to the United States with her father and two younger sisters after her 33-year-old mother died when Soca was just 15.

Had to learn English

The family moved to Orange, New Jersey, when Soca was 20, and they lived in a Hispanic community. At that time, she already had graduated the equivalent of high school and was in her first year of studying law in Uruguay.

“Without being able to speak English, I couldn’t continue my education,” she said.

She started working in a restaurant hanging coats during the winter for tips, and she later became a bus girl and a waitress, a job she held until her oldest child started school.

“I learned to speak English with my children when I was in my 30s, and I was involved as much as possible at their school. I volunteered to help the teachers in the classroom. I was the treasurer of the PTA. I decorated the school for events,” she noted. Her volunteerism earned her many awards from the Montclair Child Development Center and Oakwood Ave Elementary School in Orange.

By the time her oldest child was in middle school, Soca had three other children and was divorced.

She cleaned houses to support her family, first as an employee of a cleaning company, later with some houses on her own and, with her reputation growing, finally as the owner of her own cleaning company.

Hoping for a better life

“In hope for a better life for me and my children, I bought a house and moved to Willingboro,” she said. “I worked in a hotel as a housekeeper and laundry aide, then I was promoted to supervisor. I needed a part-time job and a friend of mine recommended me to a local nursing home, where I was introduced to my nursing career. I worked as a housekeeper and laundry aide, and I learned to love the elderly community at the center.” She would volunteer during her breaks and after work to help residents with their meals and activities, and the facility named her employee of the month several times.

Her job there and her affection for working with patients spurred her interest in health care, a field she swore she’d never work in since she had been a primary caregiver for her mother.

Moving into health care

She enrolled in a course with Bayada Nurses and got certified as a home health aide, working in home care for 11 years. “I loved it,” she said.

But she also knew that field was not going to be enough to support her family. When her fourth child started high school, Soca returned to school. She enrolled in the English as a Second Language adult program at RCBC (then known as Burlington County College), taking English and language classes to prepare for her GED. As soon as she earned her GED, she enrolled in college courses.

Two years later, in August 2017, she graduated from RCBC with honors with an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences, and she earned an associate degree with honors in applied science nursing the following May.

“I took advantage of the 3+1 program offered by Rowan University, and while taking courses for my associate degree I also took courses towards my bachelor’s,” said Soca, who obtained her R.N. license last August. “It was a difficult journey. For two years I managed to function with four hours of sleep. Literally, my classmates would wake me up because I was in the car sleeping. Between work and studying, there was no time for leisure.”

Family is a big part of why Soca has worked so much for so long. In part, she said “I owe it to my father, who worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me and my sisters.” She also wanted to make sure she could leave something for her youngest son, Edward, 8, who she worries she might not see into full adulthood.

For family

And, she wants to be a role model for her children and grandchildren (the oldest one has a tendency to say “I can’t believe I have a grandmother in college.”). Two of her children are in college – one pursuing a nursing degree after earning a teaching degree and another graduating in 2020 with a degree in health information technology. A third one plans to return to school next fall. And that oldest grandchild? Soca brought her to Lil’ Sibs Weekend at Rowan recently and showed her around campus and told her, “This is what I want you to do. Your mom and I have high expectations. We want you here.”

“The purpose of my hard work is to show to my children and grandchildren that everyone is capable to do what they want to do with discipline and determination. I also want to encourage people of my generation who think that at our age it is too late to start a career or to set new goals. I can attest that it is never too late. I always tell my kids, when you want to do something God always will show you the path,” she said.

“It was hard not seeing my family, but totally worth it,” Soca said. “I met some wonderful people along the way, my instructors, administrators, classmates and counselors. Their encouragement and support along with my family have helped me through tough times.”

“Teresa is an excellent student with the drive and dedication to succeed in nursing and embodies the mission and vision of Rowan University’s Department of Nursing,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Santucci, chair.

After graduation, Soca plans to continue her education, specializing in mental health. Remembering how she struggled financially, she also wants to offer free home health aide classes and certifications for those in need. Eventually, she’d like to operate a long-term care facility for people with cognitive and mental issues and to offer hospice services.

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