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He'll walk with graduates of Southwestern College
By Liz Neely

May 30, 2003

Marcos Altalef arrived in California from his native Guatemala five years ago. Eight days after he arrived, the 88-year-old enrolled at Southwestern College.

Today, Altalef will be the community college's oldest student participating in graduation ceremonies at DeVore Stadium, where he will receive a certificate of achievement in legal interpretation and translation from the school of business and information systems.

Altalef, a slight man who uses a walker, said he's had a passion for learning since he was a boy. Next, he plans to become a notary public.

"I love learning," said Altalef, who speaks in accented English. "I have a kind of spirit of excellence. It's something that makes you want to learn more and more and more and sacrifice your vacations and your holidays in order to study and to learn something."

Altalef will be one of about 700 Southwestern College students participating in graduation ceremonies. The college will award 517 certificates and 1,470 associate degrees this year. Commencement begins at 5 p.m. and includes remarks by state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny.

Southwestern College, with satellite campuses in San Ysidro and National City, is the only institution of higher learning in the South Bay. The college serves about 19,000 students and offers associate degrees in 139 majors and certificates in 123 programs.

Altalef, who lives with his daughter and her husband in Bonita, spent much of his professional career working as an accountant at his family's textile business and as an auditor for a major textile corporation in Guatemala. He has also worked as a translator, becoming fluent in French while attending boarding school in Paris during his teens. His native language is Spanish. He received a degree in English from La Universidad del Valle de Guatemala in 1991 when he was 76 years old, and later taught English at private and public schools, he said.

Altalef has been an inspiration to some of his classmates, said Irma Alvarez, dean of the school of business and information systems. Altalef's wife, Alegria Zarco Altalef, recently died and he has spent some time in the hospital in recent years, but he is diligent about his schoolwork, she said.

"He's just a trooper," said Alvarez, who will present Altalef with his certificate. "That's impressed, I think, so many people."

Altalef took five years to complete the program, keeping his course load light, making sure to earn good grades. He enjoys composing music and on a recent afternoon, he played a cassette tape of two songs he wrote one an ode to mothers, the other a celebration of fathers. A woman joined him, and he swayed slightly to the music, tapped his foot and sang, first in English and then in Spanish.

He vows he will never grow tired of learning and plans to publish a collection of 16 poems he wrote in Spanish.

"My teachers were really the best and my classmates were so kind with me that I'm grateful for them," Altalef said. "Nobody made me feel like an old man. For my classmates, for my teachers, I was just Marcos, that's all. For me that made me feel very comfortable."

Liz Neely: (619) 498-6631; liz.neely@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.