OAKLAND — Hazel Soares is waiting on the ground floor of the Mills College library for a media interview — the third in as many weeks — when a campus official suggests the elevator might be a more comfortable way to get to the upstairs conference room.
"Elevator?" Soares said, eyebrows raised. "I haven't taken an elevator in the last three years that I've been here. Let's take the stairs."
Up she goes, chatting about the water aerobics classes she's taken twice weekly for the past 30 years to keep her heart strong and her 94-year-old body fit.
In the conference room, she plants herself in a chair at the head of the table and then answers more than a dozen questions about her long life, six children, 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, various jobs, two husbands and what brought her to Mills College three years ago in pursuit of the art history degree that she will receive Saturday.
"There couldn't be a better place to go to school. Driving here is like coming to a park," said the San Leandro woman who drives, keeps house for herself, manages a year-round garden and has a fine-tuned sense of humor.
"One of my daughters looked me up on the Internet," she said. "I said, 'I guess I'm getting my 15 minutes of fame.' It's a little late."
Soares is the oldest person in the 138-year history of Mills College to earn an undergraduate degree.
"She's the oldest graduate, no doubt about it," college spokeswoman Quynh Tran said.
She also is presumed to be the second-oldest person in recent national history to earn such a degree. In 2007, 95-year-old Nola Ochs graduated from Fort Hays State University in Kansas with a general studies degree. Although Soares won't get a Guinness World Records spot, she is getting plenty of attention.
At least 45 relatives will watch Soares graduate during a ceremony at which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to deliver the commencement address. Nearly 100 people will attend Soares' party afterward, she said.
"Beyond raising my children, I am most proud of the fact that I finally finished school and got my degree," she said. "There was part of me all my life that wanted to go to college."
She came to Mills after transferring from Chabot College in Hayward, where she spent six years before earning an associate degree in humanities at age 85.
She initially got the idea to attend Mills after a granddaughter earned a scholarship to attend the college.
"She didn't come. She had a boyfriend," Soares said.
Soon, Soares herself was on the phone with a college adviser.
"I called her up, and then I came (to Mills), and before I left the room I had already signed up for college," she said.
Art history seemed a natural fit for study since the subject had interested Soares for a lifetime.
"I go to a museum in every town I visit," she said.
In 1995, she went to Europe with her late husband to fulfill a dream of seeing a famous sculpture.
"I remember as a child seeing a picture of Michelangelo's 'David' in these books my mother had bought for us. I said to myself that if I could go to one place in Europe, I would go to Italy. I still remember how thrilled I was to finally see it. Sculpture just amazes me."
Even with her love of art history, school wasn't easy. She said she was about B-minus student and labored over writing essays on her 25-year-old Brother typewriter.
Diva Zumaya, 21, became friends with Soares in classes.
"She's definitely very active. Not just physically, but she's really intelligent and sharp," Zumaya said. "In class, she makes comments and observations."
Mary-Ann Milford, Soares' academic adviser, was provost and dean of the faculty when Soares first arrived at Mills. She said Soares does not expect special treatment and does all of the readings, assignments and papers, just like students a quarter of her age.
"They have tremendous respect for her, and there is a lot of kidding around. Most of all, she is an incredible inspiration. She doesn't miss classes, she turns up on time, she sets a high standard for the rest of them and leads by example," said Milford, who has had experience with older students before. "Before I came to Mills, I had a gentleman in one of my classes at College of Marin who was 85. I was still a graduate student myself at UC Berkeley — this experience really opened my eyes to the fact that learning is a lifetime engagement.
"I was so impressed by this experience that whenever I've had older students, I've really valued having them in my classes as they have made a choice to continue to learn, and they all add so much to the class environment."
In addition to attending school, Soares keeps a year-round garden at her home, growing fava beans, Swiss chard and lots of tomatoes. She credits her longevity to eating fruits and vegetables daily (her late husband was a old-fashioned Portuguese farmer, she said), giving up smoking 65 years ago and having a supportive family.
Her life hasn't been easy.
She graduated from then-Roosevelt High School in Oakland in 1931, during the Great Depression. The idea of going to college seemed like an impossible dream, she recalled.
"My mom was anxious for me to get out of the house, but jobs were tough to come by," she recalled.
Two aunts tried to convince her to go to a teachers college, but Soares said she didn't see how she could support herself and go to school.
When she heard about a nursing training program where she would be provided housing, meals and a small allowance, she enrolled. Fourteen months later, she was certified as a licensed vocational nurse. She went to work at a tuberculosis sanatorium. She also held clerical jobs with the Navy and the city of San Leandro.
She married, but her first husband died at age 30. A few years later she remarried, and the two shared a 57-year union before he died five years ago.
They raised six children, and Soares now has 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 months to 57 years, she said.
With her diploma in hand, Soares said she plans to volunteer at a museum — possibly at the Oakland Museum of California, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, or the M.H. de Young Museum, where she has memberships.
"I wouldn't want to sit home and do nothing," she said.