McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

February 21, 2006

Unusual family has normal goals

Three members of Stillwater clan attending OSU

By Pat Piety

STILLWATER, Okla. — "OSU family” means different things to different people, but to the Philip Pina family of Stillwater, it really means “family.”

Pina , his wife, Fatima, and his son, Michael, are all students at Oklahoma State University. Mike was the first to enter college, followed by Fatima and then Phil.

All three are doing well, said Phil, who is majoring in history.

“My grades are the lowest of the three, and I have a B-plus average,” he said with pride.

While the Pina family reflects a current trend of older people returning to college, it also reflects the changing face of society. Phil is an African American from Massachusetts, his wife is a Palestinian born in Germany, and his son, who was also born in Germany, is the bi-racial offspring of a previous marriage.

Phil’s childhood in Halifax, Mass., was quite a distance from his current life.

A foster child whose foster family lived in a virtually all-white suburb of Boston, Phil felt the stigma of the outsider every day when he was growing up.

“Every year our elementary school teachers would have us draw our family tree,” he recalledof his childhood in the heredity-conscious Boston area. “I didn’t know anything about my family tree, but I was too embarrassed to say anything, so I would slip a blank sheet of paper in between the other students’ papers when the teacher asked us to turn them in.”

Perhaps that painful memory is one reason Phil’s goal is to teach African American history. He is determined to make sure that young African Americans will know they have a heritage to be proud of.

For 52-year-old Phil, the road to college has been a long one, however. One phase of the journey was a 22-year stint in the U.S. military, including service as a platoon sergeant in Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S. war in Iraq. During his military career, he was also stationed in South Korea and Nuremburg, Germany, where his son Michael was born during his first marriage.

Upon his retirement from the military at Fort Sill with the rank of Sgt. 1st Class, Phil took the Civil Service exam and eventually became a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, a job he still holds.

In the meantime, he met and fell in love with Fatima, a dark-eyed woman from halfway around the world, whom he met through a stroke of fate.

Born in Germany to a Palestinian father and a German mother, Fatima Darwazeh had married a man from Jordan, where she gave birth to their daughter, Reem, now 15. When that marriage failed, Fatima decided to move with Reem to the United States, where she had relatives. But getting her daughter out of Jordan was not so easy.

“If you’ve seen the movie, ‘Not Without My Daughter,’ you have a good idea of what we had to go through,” she said without further elaboration.

Eventually, Fatima and Reem were able to escape, and, as fate would have it, the person who met her upon her arrival at the Oklahoma City airport was Phil Pina.

“A friend of mine had asked me to pick her up,” he recalled.

It apparently was love at first sight, and the two were soon married.

In addition to Michael and Reem, Phil and Fatima are the parents of 10-year-old twin boys, Chris and Alex, and 8-year-old Matthew.

Fatima received her associate of arts degree in child development from Northern Oklahoma College last spring before entering OSU in the fall to study nutritional science. Her goal is to be a dietitian.

A former preschool teacher at the First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, she now teaches children’s church at the United Methodist Church and tutors students at NOC and OSU.

But it is Michael who may be the star of the trio.

A basketball player at Agra High School, where the family lived before moving to Stillwater, Michael was recruited by East Central University and two smaller colleges, but he wanted a change from small schools. His high school graduating class had 25 students, and he was ready to experience the big university. With a major in marketing, he wants to be a marketing director in retail after graduation.

Michael has already gained valuable experience in the service industry by working at the Red Lobster restaurant in Stillwater to help pay his way through college.

“I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t like Mike,” Phil said with pride.

Graduation day is always a great day in any family, and the Phil Pina family seems to be in a race to see who will get there first. While Fatima and Michael expect to graduate in May 2007, Phil thinks he will probably have to wait until December 2007.

That’s not likely to be the end of OSU attendance for the family. Since he hopes to teach in college, Phil anticipates entering graduate school as soon as possible after graduation, and the question of graduate school for Michael and Fatima is still open.

Are any of the younger Pina children thinking about going to OSU?

“They probably will," Phil said. "I’ve already made fans of them.”

Pat Piety writes for Stillwater (Okla.) NewsPress.