Barrionuevo with family
The Barrionuevo family celebrating at the Adelphi University Commencement

Nilda Barrionuevo '22 completed her degree while balancing full-time work with raising children—and having a baby during the pandemic. She says she couldn't have crossed the finish line without the support of her family and the faculty and staff at Adelphi.

Nilda Barrionuevo ’22

For most women, a college academic adviser would not be among the people they’d call while in the hospital in preterm labor. But Nilda Barrionuevo ’22, now 38, had developed “an incredible friendship and bond” over four years with Marsha Bazelais, an academic adviser in the Adelphi University College of Professional and Continuing Studies (CPCS). That’s why two years ago, while still grieving the unexpected death of her father two months prior, she phoned Bazelais with the distressing news that she was about to deliver her fourth child—11 weeks early. Baby Aaron, born on June 17, 2020, and weighing just over two pounds, would spend two months in the neonatal intensive care unit and require countless doctor visits and early intervention services after being discharged.

“Marsha had been my rock since I started at Adelphi,” said Barrionuevo. “I couldn’t have made it through to graduation this May without her and the wonderful faculty and staff who were always there for me.” Nor could Barrionuevo have earned her bachelor’s degree in social science while working full time and being a wife and mother, without the encouragement, support and sacrifices of her family.

Turning Vision Into Reality

It was a circuitous road that would take several years. Barrionuevo said that when she became a single mother at the age of 17, she vowed to create a better life for herself and her son Christian, now 20. She dropped out of high school to go to work, eventually earning her GED and then an associate degree in business administration. Her long-term plan was to earn a bachelor’s degree.

After having son Julian (now 9) and daughter Gabriella (now 8), Barrionuevo knew it was time to pursue her dream. She met and married her husband, André, and took a few college prerequisites. She was living in Brooklyn and working 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. in a clerical role as a unit assistant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) on the Upper East Side. Her husband worked the same shift there, in materials management.

In January 2016, at the age of 32, she matriculated at Adelphi after considering several schools. “I felt the College of Professional and Continuing Studies was best designed for people like me who were working full time,” she said. “Marsha was great from the very beginning.”

Most of the time, getting to campus for in-person learning was a family affair because Barrionuevo was uneasy about taking the train at night. She and her husband would leave work, pick up the two younger children at aftercare (her eldest was old enough to stay home) and pile into the car for the commute to Adelphi’s Garden City campus. He and the kids would have dinner and pass the time until classes ended at 10:00 p.m.

“It was hard,” said Barrionuevo. “I remember Julian crying, ‘I don’t want to go to Mommy’s school today!'” She wondered if she was being selfish, but with her husband’s encouragement, knew she was doing the right thing for their family.

Pivoting During the Pandemic

Then COVID-19 hit and everyone transitioned to remote learning. “I was on maternity leave and it probably was the most challenging time of my life,” said Barrionuevo. She was overseeing her kids’ schoolwork, caring for her preemie and dealing with the April 2020 death of her father. “I would often do my schoolwork at night when my husband was home and could tend to the kids. I also remember having lectures up on my laptop on the kitchen counter while I was making breakfast for everyone.

“It definitely was hard, but I was blessed with teachers and administrative staff at Adelphi who supported me through these challenges,” she said. “As always, I stayed in touch with Marsha and relied on her expertise and advice.”

With Bazelais’ guidance, she was able to achieve her goal of earning a bachelor’s degree—the first in her family to do so. At Commencement in May, she had a photo of her father and grandparents, who had all passed away during her time at Adelphi, tucked under her mortarboard. She dedicated her gratitude stole—an item of academic regalia the graduate presents to someone they wish to thank—to her husband.

Bazelais commended Barrionuevo for facing unexpected challenges with grace and resolve. “She never gives up. She’s a great example of dedication and perseverance.”

Follow Your Dreams

Barrionuevo soon plans to pursue a second bachelor’s degree, in nursing. “MSKCC has been very supportive of me for the 10 years I’ve been there, including through tuition reimbursement, and I want to give back,” she said. “I want to become an oncology nurse and learn from the best of the best there.” Her son Christian, the one who motivated her when she became his teenage mother, also works at MSKCC and wants to become a nurse. She was especially touched when, in a symbolic and generous move, he paid her last financial aid installment.

Barrionuevo said it’s never too late to pursue one’s educational goals. “I love the quote, ‘May your passion for success be greater than your fear of failure.'” She urges others to have confidence in themselves and follow their dreams. “Take your time if you must, but know that anything is possible.” She also advises adults returning to school to find a supportive and caring environment, like the one she found at Adelphi.

“In the end,” she said, “success isn’t just what you accomplish in your life. It’s about what you inspire others to do. If I can motivate just one person, I have won!”

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