For millions, the ringing of the Millennium bell marked the beginning of accomplishments yet to come.
For Alonso Vela, an 80-year-old Laredoan, the passage signaled his commitment to realize a life-long dream of pursuing a college degree.
That's why Vela, a native of Nuevo Laredo who for decades struggled to raise a family in the United States and learn English as a second language, made a decision to attend Texas A&M International University as a first-time college student this year.
An art student and former jewelry maker, Vela said he enrolled at A&M International because he has always recognized the importance of acquiring knowledge and culture through higher education.
"All of my children have college degrees and I even have grandchildren who are doctors. All of a sudden, I felt a little ashamed that I was the only one in the family who did not have a degree," Vela said smiling.
For years, financial challenges and the responsibility of raising eight children occupied much of Vela's life.
"Those years were hard in Mexico because it was almost impossible to afford a college education," said Vela, referring to his youth.
Since he could not afford a college education, Vela said, he would always surround himself with educated friends.
As parents, Vela and his late wife, Alicia Cuéllar, insisted their children have access to quality education.
In order to realize their ambitions, the couple, along with their children, immigrated to the United States. They lived in San Antonio and California for a short period and then decided to settle in Laredo.
"I remember those days," Vela said, "The whole family would sit down together, open our books and learn English."
Vela said he considers his presence at A&M International extremely important.
"I want to encourage other people to do the same," he said, "There is always something new to learn. Look at me. I'm 80 and I still pick up something new every day."
He said age difference with fellow students is not a barrier.
"I feel the same as them. The other students ask me questions and feel very comfortable with me," he said. "My heart is very young."
Vela, who has traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America, is proud to share his experiences with fellow students in his Art History class.
"I've also given a class presentation featuring the places I've visited," Vela said.
Vela said he considers hard work the elixir of a long and healthy life.
"The human mind must always be active. If you look at Hemingway and all of those famous writers and artists, you see that they kept themselves busy," said the voracious reader.
In his spare time, Vela works on building a personal museum. Tucked in the back room of his house, it showcases details of his family history, collectibles and antiques he has acquired throughout his life.
"I want to work on this project so that what we lived and saw can be passed on to the next generation," Vela said.
Vela, who is known by friends and family for his gentility and sense of humor, said he derives his greatest joy from reading books.
"I want to die reading a book," Vela said laughing. "Perhaps, it will happen."
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