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88-year-old graduates college alongside his 23-year-old granddaughter

“He and I would sometimes eat together in the cafeteria. We would study side by side,” Melanie Salazar said of her inspiring grandfather, Rene Neira.
Melanie Salazar poses with her fellow graduate and grandfather Rene Neira.
Melanie Salazar poses with her fellow graduate and grandfather Rene Neira.Courtesy Melanie Salazar

Rene Neira is living proof that you're never too old to pursue your passions, especially with a little support from your family.

The 88-year-old recently received a degree in recognition in economics from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and he accepted his diploma with his granddaughter (and fellow graduate) Melanie Salazar by his side.

Neira, right, received his degree at 88 years old.
Neira, right, received his degree at 88 years old.Courtesy Melanie Salazar

College shaped up to be a family affair for these smart cookies, but they didn’t always plan to pursue a degree together. In fact, Salazar told TODAY that her grandfather postponed his educational goals for many years as he built a family and a banking career.

“He was very passionate about urban and economic development of the southside of San Antonio. In the 1960s, he did a lot of advocacy through civic engagement. He participated in rallies and marches and got involved with local government. From that time, one of his life’s goal was to earn a degree in economics,” Salazar, 23, told TODAY over email.

Graduation day was an exciting affair for the duo.Courtesy Melanie Salazar

Neira took classes on and off starting in the 1950s, when he got married and started a family.

Once his children were adults, he returned to school in the 1980s and went back again after the death of his wife in 2009.

Salazar and Neira at graduation. "He and I would sometimes eat together in the cafeteria. We would study side by side," she said.Courtesy Melanie Salazar

Neira pursued his associate's degree at Palo Alto College, a local school that Salazar also decided to attend after she graduated high school.

Shortly after the pair started classes at the school in 2016, they went viral when Salazar posted several photos of her grandfather on Twitter.

Soon, Neira earned his associate's degree and both he and his granddaughter enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

During their time at the school, the pair never had a class together, but they spent plenty of quality time with each other.

"It was definitely an interesting experience to have my grandpa on campus with me, but I was pretty used to it. It became my normal!" said Neira, who earned a degree in communications.

"He and I would sometimes eat together in the cafeteria. We would study side by side. Sometimes he would need help navigating the school’s website for his classes and I would help him. I often would take him to campus and take him back home." 

On the day of their graduation from UTSA earlier this month, Salazar wheeled Neira, who is terminally ill and in hospice care, onto the stage so he could receive his diploma.

"It felt like a miracle! We didn’t know if we would see this moment come true with his declining health. I am very thankful that UTSA was able to make it happen and that he was recognized for his work," Neira said. "He worked so hard despite having hearing loss, sometimes not having a car and having to take the public bus, and working twice as hard to understand the ever-changing and modernizing content of economics that has changed since he first started school."

Salazar, who also minored in Spanish and civic engagement at UTSA's Honors College, said that she and Neira were close before attending school together, but explained that the experience definitely gave them the chance to see each other more often.

"I am so thankful to have him and I am so thankful to have shared these memories together of college and graduations. I love him dearly," she said.

The graduate, who hopes to work in the nonprofit field now that she's done with school, said her grandfather's story proves that you can do anything if you work hard enough.

"He worked hard and so can anyone if they truly want it," she said.