Living her Life
For small-town girl Jolene Varela, a case of love at first sight brought her to San Angelo, where she has stayed ever since graduating from high school.
Office coordinator for Angelo State Facilities Management, Varela grew up in Post where she lived in the “mill village” housing complex for the families of workers at Post’s Burlington Industries mill. Her family spoke both English and Spanish at home, making it easier for her to adapt to school and the community without the cultural or language discrimination some of her Hispanic contemporaries faced.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Varela said. “The people I went to high school with, we usually started out in kinder or first grade and then went all through school with each other. Just like any other school, you had your cliques, but I never really experienced or saw anyone treated differently because of being Hispanic.”
Varela’s parents were firm about their children finishing high school, but never really pushed college. Her brother, George, was the first person in her family to go to college when he came to ASU in the late 1970s. Visiting her brother opened Varela’s eyes to the possibilities in the “big city.”
“I see a lot more of [Hispanics] encouraging their kids to go to school. I also see a lot more kids with that desire to go to college than I did when I was in school, and that’s a good thing.”
“When we came to see him, I just fell in love with San Angelo,” Varela said. “I was from a place that was flat and dirt. I came here and it was all green with trees. I told myself I was going to come back here one day, so I came back to go to ASU.”
“But, college just wasn’t for me at the time,” she continued. “I just wasn’t disciplined enough for school back then.”
After two years at ASU, Varela joined the workforce. She helped open San Angelo’s first Wal-Mart, then worked at the Thom McAn store in Sunset Mall. While taking a break to shop the clearance racks in front of the mall’s J.C. Penney store, she had her first experience of being “different.”
“There was an elderly lady looking at clothes on the same rack,” Varela said. “She looked at me and asked me what the price was for a certain item. I told her I did not work there, and she apologized but said she thought I looked like a salesperson. I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because you’re Mexican.’ That was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that.”
Varela soon left the mall and went to work at the local cable company, which transitioned through several ownerships during her tenure. When Cox Cable took over, she and many of the other staff members were laid off, but Varela actually benefitted because it led to her job at ASU.
“I really enjoy the people at ASU,” Varela said. “We have some really wonderful, neat people who work here and are ready to help you any way they can.”
“My office is over here on the edge of campus,” she added, “but I know a lot of the people from talking to them on the phone. Some of them, we’ve made the effort to meet face-to-face, and I talk to many people on the phone who I feel are my friends even though I never see them.”
Now in her 11th year at ASU, Varela has seen many changes to the campus as well as a real positive change in the attitude of Hispanic parents toward higher education.
“I see a lot more of them encouraging their kids to go to school,” Varela said. “I also see a lot more kids with that desire to go to college than I did when I was in school, and that’s a good thing.”
“I would tell them they definitely need to do it,” she added, “not just to be able to get a better job, but also to just get the education and better themselves.”