Friday, Oct. 26, 2018
In the middle of the moments that defined the first half of her adult life, a period she more than once described as “overwhelming” — enrolling at Virginia Commonwealth University, transferring to a community college, establishing a career, marriage, children, divorce, raising four kids on her own — Sophia Entzminger decided to learn Spanish.
She enrolled in a small weekly class at a community center in Chesterfield County. It was not supposed to lead to anything, Entzminger said. Her oldest children were grown and the youngest — twins Noah and Mia — were in high school. Entzminger, a respiratory therapist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, had noticed an increase in Spanish-speaking patients and thought a knowledge of the language, even a passing one, would be beneficial. She took the class “just to see if I would like it,” she said.
She enjoyed it so much that she enrolled in a second class, this one at John Tyler Community College. Then she took a third. Then a fourth.
“I took one class every semester — Spanish 1, Spanish 2 — and I think by Spanish 2 the bug had kind of hit me,” Entzminger said.
Nearly four years later, after completing three more courses and making three trips to Central America — and as Noah and Mia settle into their first semester at VCU — Entzminger has returned to the Monroe Park Campus to complete a bachelor’s degree, a process she started more than 30 years ago.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, her brown eyes glancing toward the window as she sits in the lobby of James Branch Cabell Library. “I would have never thought in a million years that I would be back in this place.”
‘I just don’t think I was ready’
Entzminger first arrived at VCU in the summer of 1986, a shy 18-year-old from Richmond’s Southside. It did not go well.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “I remember my biology class, walking in and it seemed like an auditorium and I remember the teacher wrote on the overhead projector so everyone could see it. I just don’t think I was ready for the large experience.”
She completed her first year then transferred to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Her mother suggested the idea. The classes were smaller, and Entzminger could find a trade program as she continued to search for her long-term career. Entzminger remembers leafing through the Reynolds course bulletin as she tried to pick a major.
“I always knew that I wanted to work in a hospital and I happened to fall on a page about respiratory therapy,” she said. “I decided to try it, never knew what a respiratory therapist was, what they did, nothing.”
Respiratory therapists work with patients suffering from acute or chronic pulmonary dysfunction. Entzminger excelled in the program at Reynolds, and by age 20 she was working full time at VCU Medical Center.
“I worked in neonatal [care], in all the ICUs. I remember seeing a lot very early — traumas, codes, the sickest of the sickest, cancers, death,” she said. “But I loved critical care, I did love it.”
Entzminger settled into a 30-year career in the field. She and boyfriend Timothy Davis, who Entzminger first met when she was 16, were married in 1992. Two years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Nina, and in 1998 the family welcomed a second daughter, Maya. Entzminger left work to spend more time with her children. She did not think about returning to school.
“At the time, I did not think about going back,” she said. “I was married. I had a family.”
The marriage, however, began to fracture. In 1999, Entzminger returned to work as a respiratory therapist at Children’s Hospital. Within a year, she learned she was pregnant again, this time with twins.
Noah and Mia Davis are like their mother, and unlike each other.
“Mia takes a lot after me,” Entzminger said. “She rises early. She is a stickler about time like me. She’s very prompt. Noah has a crazy personality like me; he likes to laugh. Mia’s a little bit more serious.”
Like Entzminger, the twins are motivated. Mia, who for years believed she would study journalism, recently discovered a passion for special education. Noah gravitates toward computers, electronics and technology. They are best friends, Mia said. Both received scholarships to attend VCU.
“We probably love each other the most and also get into the most disagreements,” Noah said. “We’re completely different people but we fit together really well. It’s like yin and yang.”
The twins endured a rocky beginning, born at 29 weeks via emergency cesarean section after complications during the pregnancy. Doctors had to perform CPR on Noah.
“His heart wasn’t beating,” Entzminger said. “They didn't tell me at the time. I would have blown my top and they would have had to sedate me.”
She was in intensive care for days after the surgery. She remembers little. When Entzminger woke up, her mother was in the room, and a picture of the twins had been set bedside.
Entzminger, who worked extensively in neonatal care and pediatrics, had seen babies die after being born too early and babies with long-term effects related to premature birth. She began peppering staff with questions about the twins.
“The first question I asked was, ‘How much do they weigh?’ How much they weigh means a lot in their recovery,” she said. “And they told me they were almost two and a half pounds each, which is fat. And I said, ‘Oh great, we’re good.’ I asked if they were on oxygen and they said just a little bit. And they were on a ventilator, which is normal.”
Mia and Noah spent a month in the hospital. To date, neither has had health complications related to their preterm birth.
“They’re my miracles,” Entzminger said.
‘A big blur’
Two years later, the marriage was over.
“I remember the twins were almost 2 or right at 2,” Entzminger said. “It just wasn’t working. I knew the marriage wasn’t working.”
She and Davis completed the divorce in 2003. That, she said, was when things were toughest. She was busy, very busy — a single parent, working night shifts at the hospital, with three kids in diapers.
“It’s a big blur,” she said.
Thankfully, she also had support from her parents and a tight community of friends at Crossover Church in Chesterfield. Kevin Meade, the pastor, and Entzminger had been friends and classmates at George Wythe High School. Meade’s family was about to move to a new house near Amelia County. Instead of putting his four-bedroom home on the market, he invited Entzminger to rent it. She later purchased the house. Church members would bring meals. Meade’s daughter, Charity, helped Entzminger with the kids — “giving baths, getting the kids ready for bed, or just if I needed a break,” Entzminger said.
“They were just so supportive the whole time,” she said. “The whole village helped raise [the kids].”
The family was close, and despite a sometimes chaotic schedule, they made time to be together.
“We had our dedicated family time almost every night,” Noah said. “We’d come together in a room and watch TV together. [Mom] loved goofy cartoons, so we always watched SpongeBob, stuff like that.”
Though it was at times overwhelming, it was a happy home, Entzminger said.
“It was a season in my life,” she said. “I always think all the seasons always add to your life in some way, whether they’re hard and challenging or whether they’re easy and make you laugh every day. They’re all part of the process of making you who you are.”
‘I kept thinking about what I was going to do with my life’
In 2014, around the time the twins were starting high school, Entzminger developed an interest in studying a foreign language.
“I thought it would be exciting,” she said. “My last name is German, but as I looked into German I thought it would be too difficult. I said, ‘Let's try Spanish.’ And after I took that little class in the community — and we were learning basics, alphabet, things like that — the teacher told me I had a really good sound for the language and that I should keep studying.”
Entzminger didn’t think much of it at the time, but she kept returning to the idea. She saw the growth in the Latino population in the region. She started to think about how she could become more helpful in her community by learning a second language.
Within a year, she had completed two classes at John Tyler.
“It just hit her,” her daughter Maya said. “Like, ‘Hey, I want to help out.’ From there it just took off.”
Entzminger searched for more opportunities to immerse herself in the language, first by assisting with an English as a second language class at the Sacred Heart Center, and then through two service abroad trips — one to Guatemala with the Highland Support Project and one to Honduras as part of an annual program led by VCU doctors Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., and Michael Stevens, M.D.
“I didn’t want to go on a beach vacation, I wanted to immerse myself, to learn and see how other people lived,” Entzminger said.
Back home, she volunteered as a translator with the Bon Secours Care-A-Van mobile clinic and through a charity, Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which provides translation services at immigration detention centers. She took another class at John Tyler, then one at Reynolds. Her fifth class was at VCU, and involved a three-week abroad experience in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she lived with a host family and took Spanish classes six hours a day.
By 2017, Entzminger had taken all the Spanish classes offered through area community colleges. With the twins approaching high school graduation, she found herself thinking about a return to VCU.
“I kept thinking about what I was going to do with my life,” she said. “My kids are older, what do I do with my time? I thought about some options. Did I want to go back and do nursing? I thought about taking an exam to further my career in respiratory therapy. And of course there was Spanish.
“I just had all these things going in my head, and close to [their] graduation it just hit me.”
VCU, take two
Entzminger carries her transcripts — from VCU, Reynolds and John Tyler — wherever she goes, tucked into a folder in her gray backpack. One Monday last spring, she finished a 12-hour night shift at the hospital and drove to the Monroe Park Campus to speak with an academic adviser about pursuing a Spanish degree.
“They thought they would accept most of my credits and that I could be a junior, that I could graduate in about four or five semesters,” Entzminger said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was so excited and I went home and told the twins.
“I always wanted to set an example of education for my kids. Even though I had a good job and a two-year degree from a community college, I definitely wanted to set the example of continuing, of never stopping the learning and growing process.”
That outlook is inspiring, said Maya, currently a student at John Tyler.
“I think that’s really cool and I think it’s inspiring, that you can go back to school, and it’s not too late, and you can make a difference,” she said. “My mom is older and she decided she wanted to go back to school full time and work full time. I don’t know how she does it.
“I’m proud of her. I’m proud of them,” she said of her mother and twin siblings.
When they all were accepted to VCU, Entzminger spoke to the twins about the importance of a college education. She reminded them they were focused and motivated. She told them they had a lot to give and much to learn.
“You’re going to be the first in this house to graduate with a four-year college degree,” she told them.
Noah corrected his mother.
“We’re not going to be the first,” he said. “You are.”
‘I belong here’
The three enrolled at VCU in August. Noah is studying computer science. Mia wants to be a special education teacher.
Entzminger also wants to teach.
“I want to berth in this generation a desire to be bilingual, to learn another language and the advantages of it and of travel,” she said. “And I want to help others who are here who say they can’t learn English, who are afraid. I just use myself as an example that you can learn a language; it’s helpful to learn a language and it’s only going to help you.
“I belong here. I feel like I belong here.”
Mia wants to be bilingual like her mother. She said her determination is inspiring.
“I know it’s a rarity to go to school with your twin and your mom, but for me it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s not odd,” Mia said. “She’s not going to let anything stop her, not her age, not her kids, nothing. I just admire that about her.”
Their schedules pull them all over VCU. Entzminger is still working full time, and her five fall classes are packed into two days. Sometimes she and Noah meet for lunch at Chicken Fiesta or Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken on West Broad Street. Of course, there are ground rules when the family gets together on campus.
“They can’t yell ‘Mom!’ across Shafer Court or anything like that; they’ll blow my cover,” Entzminger said, laughing. “They have to call me by my first name.”
The kids call her “Mom” anyway.
“It’s a work in progress,” Entzminger said.