Priscilla Mikesell Westby, 65, will be at the Cuesta College graduation ceremonies on Friday, May 18, but not to watch while a family member gets a diploma. Instead, Mikesell is to graduate and receive her own degree in paralegal studies.
The achievement seems fitting for a determined, disabled senior who already has spent much of her life helping others.
Local recipients of Mikesell’s generosity and energy range from the Cambria Teen Center (and its predecessor, the Cambria Youth Center, which she helped to found) and the Cambria Connection (which coordinates various family resources, 12-step and self-help programs) to Cambria Adult Rehabilitation, Education and Support (CARES), (which offers services and encouragement for seniors and their caregivers).
After commencement, Mikesell is to attend the graduation in Idaho of her 17-year-old granddaughter Jordan.
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Then the grad grandma hopes to work in a family-law office for a few years, and eventually follow her real dream to work with public defenders to again help those who can’t afford the assistance they so desperately need.
Mikesell’s just now beginning to realize what she’s accomplishing. “It’s pretty wonderful,” she said, and, maybe, “if I can do it, anyone can.”
How she did it
Mikesell left college at the age of 19 in 1966, she said in a series of email and in-person interviews excerpted in quotes below.
She became involved with various anti-war, social and political causes in Berkeley in the ’60s and ’70s, and was a union organizer at factories at which she and her husband worked.Mikesell also studied landlord/tenant laws and combed through the Taft Hartley and Landrum Griffin acts, two union regulating laws, “to learn what our rights were” and help others.
Her husband died in 1973, leaving a pile of legal woes. She moved to Cambria in April 1979. Even though she was and is a real estate broker, she also took jobs as a waitress and night cashier, gallery clerk and salesperson hawking golf clubs or greenhouses, “to cover expenses, like living indoors and eating,” Mikesell wrote.
At the same time, Mikesell began again to help others.
“I was a part of the original group who began the old youth center with Bill Barrows,” she wrote. Mikesell stayed involved and worked at the Teen Center for more than two years.
She helped form a coalition of community organizations as CARES in 2002, and remained on the nonprofit group’s board until her college schedule conflicted. In 2009, she interned to help low-income seniors through the nonprofit Seniors Legal Services Project in San Luis Obispo.
Mikesell’s been part of the Cambria Connection Board for about 15 years. “I got a drug and alcohol counseling certificate from UCSB in 1994 and worked in the field,” she wrote.
For instance, she worked with the homeless through the San Luis Obispo homeless shelter, led men’s and women’s groups at the County Jail, and helped clients with their disability claims and appeals. “It was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve had,” she wrote, “and some of those folks are still sober today.”
Mikesell can empathize with what many of her clients go through. “I’ve been clean and sober for 20 years,” she explained.
She’s also disabled, due to botched neck surgery in 1990, which left her unable to work for eight years. She’s also had two wrist-reconstruction surgeries at UCLA.
But Mikesell’s problems began early, with substance abusers in her family.
When she was 7 years old, her school told her she was “a moron” or a “high-grade mental deficient.” Her testing showed an IQ of 86. Until she was 11, she attended school with “what were then termed ‘retarded students,’” she said.
Then her vision and IQ were tested again. Those IQ results were “substantially higher,” but by then, she’d gotten “a life-long message that I was stupid.” However, it had “actually been a blessing to have been thrown in with those students, because I developed a true understanding of what it was like to be discriminated against” and be an underdog.
That was her “first taste of being an advocate, and speaking up for them as much as I could without being thrown out of school myself.”
After her husband’s death, her own substance-abuse battles and her move to Cambria, she again turned to volunteer work to provide inner peace and a feeling of self worth.She finally enrolled in college in 2008, despite her constant neck and back pain. Then she severely injured both wrists after slipping on a freshly waxed floor while playing table tennis with Teen Center players.
Acing a keyboarding class while wearing two post-surgery wrist braces has been especially challenging, she said, and long days studying and doing homework are hard on her spine.But Mikesell doesn’t look back, just ahead to graduation and beyond.
“Even with my age, my background, and the nature of the study of law being difficult,” she wrote, “I have been given a real opportunity to see what dreams we can create for ourselves through some work, some confidence overcoming obstacles, and the loving support of those around us, more than we ever imagined. We can undo old messages, and give back to our community what we have been so freely given. It’s never too late.”