Sentinel & Enterprise
By Prudence Brighton
LOWELL —With a bachelor's degree in hand and graduate studies ahead, Neil Oliveria speaks about his future with the hope you might expect from someone who was just awarded his diploma last month from UMass Lowell.
Oliveria, however, is 65. He'll turn 66 in July. He majored in history, minored in English and completed that coursework in December. He immediately started work towards a master's in education. He emphatically wants to teach "for at least 10 to 15 years."
With a 3.9 cumulative average in his major and a 4.0 in his minor, his brand new diploma reads 'magna cum laude'.
Oliveria's unlikely academic journey began after he graduated from Lowell High School in 1971.
He first attended Fitchburg State College, then Northern Essex Community College. He was working part time at Star Market, too, where he fell in love with a co-worker. So after finishing his two-year degree, he got a job as a technical writer at Raytheon.
"Back then, you didn't need a four-year degree to get a good job," he says. "I just wanted to get married to Linda, get a job, buy a house and have kids."
Neil and his wife bought a house in Townsend where they raised their three children. They have been married 43 years and have four grandchildren.
He spent 19 years as a technical writer before he was laid off. "I moved to the production side of things after that," he says.
He worked for publishing companies, including Sundance Publishing of Littleton and Northboro. Sundance was then sold to a company interested in the brand name and book titles but not the employees. He was out of work for six months before going to work for an advertising company in Boston. Just as the Great Recession of 2008 took hold he was laid off again. He was out of work for a few years and the family lost the house in Townsend.
The Oliverias moved back to the family home on Lundberg Street in Lowell to live with family, including his now 89-year-old father, Neil Oliveria Sr. And he went to work for a limo company, driving people in and out of Boston every day.
All the while he was studying history, he continued working for the limo company several nights a week. He never failed to do his coursework and was admitted to the history honor society, Phi Alpha Theta. He is now president of that organization.
Attending his oldest granddaughter's high school graduation, he had his "light bulb moment". An older man, an active teacher who appeared to be in his 80s, was giving out awards. As he describes the moment, "I thought that could be me."
He has always loved history. His grandfather, who also lived on Lundberg Street, had a collection of history books that 12-year-old Oliveria inherited on his grandfather's death. He read them all.
His decision to apply to UMass Lowell worried some family members because of student loans he would be taking on. However, he went ahead with his plan. He applied and was accepted in September 2016.
With help from university staff, he was able to transfer many of his earlier credits from Fitchburg State and Northern Essex. These credits allowed him to graduate in two-and-a-half years. Not everything transferred, however. For example, a course in data processing from the 1970s was not accepted.
UMass Lowell's history department could not ask for a better spokesperson. "I loved the kids in my classes. I loved every professor. And I loved every class I took," Oliveria says.
"I am thrilled that I did. It was one of the best decisions I ever made," he adds.
Asked how he would encourage younger people to study history, he says, "I wouldn't. I would tell them to study something they love." He's fairly certain that most students studying business do not love it.
If prospective college students are worried about the utility of a history degree, Oliveria says they should not.
"The corporate world is looking at history majors with new interest. A history professor told our class that the way history is taught now you have to research, ferret things out, and write reports," he says. "These are all useful skills in the corporate world."
Because Oliveria has his bachelor's degree and is taking graduate education courses, he has a provisional teaching license and has started applying for jobs. He can also add volunteer work in the Lowell school system this spring to his resume.
Although family members were skeptical when he first broached the idea of going to college, "they are beginning to come around," he says. Recently, his father looked at him and said, "I see it now. Now you have hope."