The Family That Learns Together, Graduates Together

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Laura and Jadwiga Arena share a few things in common. And not just their last name. 

Both women live in West Haven. They both radiate 1,000-watt smiles, reflecting the boundless optimism the pair share about the future. That optimism has proven a useful tool in navigating career changes that required a thoroughgoing retraining for new vocational challenges. So both returned to college mid-career for the academic and practical preparation needed to succeed in their new industries (radiography and medical billing/records, respectively).

That’s why on May 24 Laura and Jadwiga Arena will share a new life distinction: Gateway Community College alumnae. And what makes the new GCC grads so unusual is one other trait they share in common: their DNA.

Jadwiga and Laura are hardly the first mother-daughter tag team to earn degrees from Gateway — but they may be the first to be awarded their dual diplomas on the same day when they receive their associate degrees May 24 at Webster Bank Arena.

Laura Arena, 27, originally attended the University of New Haven in pursuit of a career in education. But an abiding interest in medicine, particularly “the bones,” led her to Gateway to study radiography. “I did my research and discovered that Gateway has one of the top X-ray programs in the state,” she explains. “So I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, that’s where I want to go — and I’ll do whatever it takes to go there.’”

Laura’s mother, Jadwiga Arena, emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1978 at age 18 and worked for 35 years in management positions while attending college in the evenings to polish her English skills. When her most recent employer, Interplex Technologies (where Jadwiga worked for 17 years), was sold and closed its North Haven office at the end of 2015, “I decided to go back to school” to retool and update her job skills.

Jadwiga enrolled at GCC at the beginning of 2016 to learn medical billing and coding toward a concentration in electronic health records. Like her daughter, Jadwiga “was always interested in the medical field,” she says. “Now, I’m graduating with honors — with a second associate’s degree” to complement the one she earned in the 1980’s as a then newly minted immigrant to the U.S.

Laura acknowledges she wasn’t entirely prepared for the academic rigors she encountered at GCC. “It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she recounts, “especially the science courses. But I’m glad I did it.” Laura’s persistence paid off: She’s already landed a post-graduation position with a Trumbull orthopedic practice, while her mother is finishing an internship with Yale University Health Systems. “I really have enjoyed being at Gateway,” Jadwiga Arena says. “I’m going to miss it.”

For the Arenas, working and learning together at GCC brought a new dimension to the mother-daughter relationship.  “I am so proud of my children, especially this one,” says Jadwiga. When Laura and her older sister were growing up, “I was always working [days] and my husband worked evenings. So when I left [Interplex Technologies two and a half years ago] I was able to spend more time with my younger daughter [Laura]. Seeing her in school and then going to school with her at Gateway made me feel great.”

“This has to be one of my favorite times of the year,” said GCC President, Paul Broadie II. “It is always exciting to learn about the journeys of our graduates and I’m inspired when I see a mother and daughter achieve this milestone after working hard to accomplish their goals. I congratulate them both on walking this road together. Now it’s time to celebrate!”

To celebrate their unusual distinction Jadwiga and Laura Arena are embarking June 1 on a well-earned graduation cruise. Ports of call: the Dominican Republic, Aruba, the Turks and Caicos islands and Curaçao.

Quite an itinerary to fete the family feat. “Go big or go home,” says Laura Arena with a laugh.