Paula Longoria Harrell
Paula Longoria Harrell

Commencement Close-Up: Former chef Paula Longoria Harrell has a recipe for career changing and college success

By Lynn Gosnell
Special Projects Writer

(May 8, 2009)--If former chef Paula Longoria Harrell could come up with a recipe for college graduation, it might go like this:

Make a rich stock of work and family.
Season with years of intellectual curiosity.
Stir in new possibilities.
Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
Serve to your community.

Harrell will graduate this spring with a bachelor of arts in applied sciences (B.A.A.S.) The degree is offered through the Department of Sociology and is specifically designed for students who have graduated from a community college with an associate of applied science degree.

A nontraditional student, Harrell will celebrate opening a new chapter of her life at the annual La Despedida ceremony at 8 p.m., Saturday, May 9 in the Buena Vista Theater on the UTSA Downtown Campus.

Working as a chef was not Harrell's first career. After graduating from Edison High School in 1981, she enrolled at San Antonio College, but after one semester she was offered a job with AT&T. For 12 years she worked as an international phone rep, taking classes as time permitted. She married and had two children. Since 1999, Harrell has been a single mom. Harrell's first career change happened as a result of being laid off from AT&T.

"I was so tired of using my head, and I wanted to do something with my hands," she said. Harrell enrolled at St. Philips College and earned an associate degree in culinary arts. For seven years, she operated a catering business. One of her main clients was her church, St. Matthews Catholic Church.

"I did a lot of funeral catering," she recalled. In 2002 at age 39, Harrell returned to college, at first taking classes toward earning a business degree.

"I was ready to go back to using my mind," she said. "Plus, I couldn't physically keep up with catering." A call from a UTSA adviser pointed her to the B.A.A.S. degree. The program was a perfect fit.

"The classes I took made me fall in love with sociology and the study of people," said Harrell, crediting a number of faculty members, including Josephine Méndez-Negrete, for opening her eyes about her own Latino heritage.

In a gesture toward honoring her ancestors, Harrell has legally added Longoria, her grandparents' name, to her name. "I loved my grandparents very much, and they believed in education." After graduation, Harrell plans to pursue a graduate degree in marriage and family counseling.

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