Melanie Salazar didn’t mean to complicate her 82-year-old grandfather’s life. She just wanted to show him off to her friends.
The 18-year-old community college freshman posted photos of her grandpa on his first day of class on the same campus they now both attend.
“I'm so proud of my grandpa for finishing his first day at PAC this semester! 82 years old and not giving up!!!” she wrote in a tweet.
More than 2,220 people retweeted the post; twice as many people liked it.
“I posted the pictures innocently because I’m proud of my grandpa. And they got one retweet and then another it just went off from there. It was very unexpected,” Salazar told TODAY.
Her grandfather, Rene Neira, has only one class left — microeconomics — before he can get an associate’s degree from Palo Alto College in San Antonio.
“I never thought anything of it, an older man taking college classes. It was something I grew up seeing,” Salazar said. “Even now, the fact I’m now going to the same college as my grandfather, it kind of feels normal to me. It’s been great to have something that feels almost ordinary to me be so extraordinary to all these people.”
Neira started his higher education pursuit in 1952 after graduating from high school. He attended St. Mary’s University for more than two years, accumulating about 60 credits.
“My intention was to get a degree with a major in economics,” he told TODAY. But then he got married and started a family and eventually stopped taking classes.
He started up again in the 1970s, enrolling in community college classes over the years as his children pursued their degrees before taking another break. He began again in earnest in 2009 shortly after his wife passed away.
Neira said he’s just as proud of his granddaughter as she is of him. Although Salazar has great role models in her parents, including her mother, who is a third grade teacher, he understands he might be helping her stay motivated to pursue her degree.
“It was special for both of us to go to the community college at the same time,” he said.
While Neira's determination to pursue a degree has never wavered over the decades, the structure of the classes he takes have, particularly their reliance on technology. It’s been a difficult adjustment for Neira, who doesn’t own a computer or even a cell phone.
When he became a social media star, Salazar had to describe for her grandfather the basics of what happened.
“I had to explain to him first what Twitter was and what this meant,” she said. “I had to tell him, ‘So this is Twitter, and this is a big number in terms of the internet and social media.'"
Neira eventually plans to apply for the University of Texas San Antonio to finish his pursuit of an economics degree.
Until then, he and Salazar try to see each other on campus whenever possible. He has walked Salazar to class and the two have met up for lunch. Earlier this week, Salazar spent several hours with him at a computer lab trying to help her grandfather access his homework assignments.
The two also see each other every Sunday at church.
“We’re very close,” said Salazar, who described Neira as “my best friend.”
“Grandpa is very funny and very extroverted. He’s very bubbly and he knows how to ham it up,” she said. “I don’t want to say he’s the life of the party, because he doesn’t party, but he’s very lively and his personality is one that people would be drawn to because he’s very friendly and outgoing.”
But even gregarious individuals need to buckle down when it comes to homework, and Neira said he’s found his new celebrity status to be a diversion.
“She didn’t mean any harm by it. It’s an innocent thing to do,” he said of his granddaughter’s now-viral tweet. “Everybody’s doing it now, taking pictures and all that, but we didn’t know the repercussions.”
Neira said he’s actually been “very embarrassed" by the attention, in part because it arrived as he struggles to adapt to technology needed to keep up with class.
“I really don’t like all the distraction. It bothers me. I’m not used to this kind of thing. I just want to mind my own business,” he said. “But if I’m helping people, inspiring and motivating them to get their education, that’s fine with me. It makes me feel good.”