Non-trad shares her key to happiness

Ann Kopecky

Ann Kopecky

Victoria Riggs beams from ear to ear as she enters the Lakota/Dakota room in Yeager Hall.

With her backpack slung over one shoulder, the dark-haired woman makes her way into the room, quickly finding a chair around the circular table in the center of the room. As she patiently waits for her magazine writing and editing class to begin, she joins in conversation with two other students in the class.

The two girls, barely in their 20s, visit with Riggs as if they’ve been old friends for years. Giggling and whispering, the trio talks about another class they are currently taking.

As Riggs carries on in conversation, she tries to find a common ground with the girls. But it’s hard to visit with her classmates about her beautiful 4-year-old granddaughter, Alissa, or the daily pains of arthritis. It’s hard to relate to two classmates, 30 years younger.

“They are very accepting of me, which speaks volumes for them in terms of their being open-minded to embracing diversity,” the 51-year-old Riggs said as she comments on the students’ acceptance of her. “The young people I meet on campus are so awesomely smart and capable. I never cease to be impressed with them.”

Riggs’s eyes twinkle as she describes how she became a student at South Dakota State University. It was a long journey, but a journey Riggs always hoped to make.

Born in Iowa, Riggs grew up on a dairy farm near Platteville, Wis. She attended a one-room country school with eight grades all sharing the same teacher. She remembers living without central heat and running water in the family home and she also remembers the day her family got a telephone and a television.

“I am a member of what I call the ‘transition’ generation,” Riggs said. “I always had a vivid imagination, but in my wildest imagination I could never have envisioned the school experience I am having at SDSU in this new millenium.”

Riggs said that she enjoyed being a teenager of the 60s though. The mix of politics, music and social change inspired Riggs.

“What a fantastic experience it was being a part of that exciting time in history,” Riggs said.

In 1970, Riggs graduated from high school. She attended Wisconsin State University in Platteville and pursued a degree in nursing. But after a year, Riggs knew that was not what she wanted to do with her life and quit.

At 20-years-old, she married a man in the army and lived in Germany for the first two years of their marriage. Riggs’s time in Germany was cut short by the Munich Olympics tragedy as military dependants were urged to return to the United States.

“During the entire flight home my heart was in my throat because I believed that at any moment the plane would explode,” Riggs said. “I was never so glad as when the plane touched down on American soil where I was safe from terrorism.”

After returning to the United States, Riggs followed her husband as he returned to college in Wisconsin and later in Utah, getting his degree and later a doctorate in pychology.

The family, which consisted of Riggs, her husband and their three children, Christine, Kevin and Scott, settled in Huron. Her husband worked at a mental health center as Riggs herself pursued a job as a career mom. Riggs kept busy as she coached soccer, served as a den mother for Cub Scouts and a room mother in her children’s classes and kept her home in order.

“I always wanted to go back to school,” Riggs said. “I was just grateful that I was able to be a career mom.”

After 18 years of marriage, Riggs and her husband divorced. Riggs moved to Brookings, where she worked at Rainbow Play Systems Inc., Larsons Manufacturing Inc. and Daktronics Inc.

“I had no education,” Riggs said. “I had to do what I could do.”

But Riggs knew she didn’t belong in a factory job and decided to pursue a different career. After scoring well on a test at the Career Learning Center, a career counselor told Riggs she needed to go back to college.

In the fall of 2001, Riggs stepped onto the campus of SDSU. It had been 31 years since she was last enrolled as a student. And this time she was the minority.

“At first I just tried to stay invisible,” Riggs said. “I was scared that I wouldn’t be smart. I felt kind of socially isolated. I tried to kind of sit back and absorb.”

After a while, Riggs decided to participate in class more. She found both teachers and students very accepting of her and she found herself fitting in to her new surroundings.

Riggs and two other students have a joke about Riggs’s age. One day Riggs called herself the “granny on campus” and the name has stuck.

“It’s just the feeling that you’re different,” Riggs said. “I’m not like 20-something-year-olds.”

Riggs’s instructors have also helped her fit in. Her advisor, Doris Giago, always gives Riggs an encouraging word when she sees her.

“She’s always on the lookout,” Riggs said.

The junior journalism major makes the 20-mile drive from Arlington to Brookings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to attend her classes in magazine writing and editing, current world problems, domestic violence and her two English classes, one in literature and the other in technical communications. Riggs does not work but pays for school through financial aid and scholarships.

“I just want to learn all I can,” Riggs said.

She hopes to get a career in writing after her graduation in 2005. Working for a magazine or being a public relations director are a few options Riggs has considered. Her secret dream job is to start her own magazine for her generation.

“I would really like to do that,” Riggs said, laughing. “That would be the dream job.”

Her family has been very supportive. Her mom hangs her best papers on the fridge and her granddaughter can’t wait to go to college to eat ice cream with her grandma.

Riggs said she feels young at heart. Her key to happiness is trying to do something nice for someone each day.

“Every day I make sure I go out of my way for someone else,” Riggs said.

At the age of 50, Riggs said that she realized there was more sand in the bottom of the timer than in the top and she realized that there were a lot of things she still wanted to accomplish.

Riggs has some advice for her younger classmates.

“Take time along the way to do things that are personally enjoyable and meaningful,” Riggs said. “Be tolerant of older persons. Before you know it, you turn around and you are the old geezer holding up traffic or the checkout line. You will want people to be kind to you.”

#1.886673:12400012.jpg:victoira.jpg:In 1970, Victoria Riggs attended Wisconsin State University. Now 30 years later Riggs has stepped onto campus at SDSU.: