When Dorothy Bokelmann crossed the commencement stage in 1967, she became the first student to earn a master’s degree at UNLV, then known as Nevada Southern University. For her achievement, she received a congratulatory letter from Nevada Assemblyman Zelvin Lowman. There were notices in the local papers about her.
“I love to say I made history because I got the first master’s degree,” she said.
Bokelmann, who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, had already begun a master’s program at the University of Wisconsin when her husband’s job in school construction took her to Las Vegas.
When they arrived in 1963 with their four children, “the campus was pretty much nil,” she said. Bokelmann asked about enrolling in a graduate program, but was told that the new university didn’t have any.
“I spoke with a professor at the university, and he told me if I wanted this program, I would have to go to Reno,” Bokelmann said. “But I couldn’t do that because we had four kids. So I just slowly started classes.”
After earning her master’s, Bokelmann went to work at the Clark County School District.
“I really like to nurture people. I like working with kids because you can help them develop their language skills. And they can function better in their academic lives,” she said.
After graduation, Bokelmann worked as a counselor at Orr Junior High for three years until a position opened up in speech pathology. Over the course of 23 years, she would become director of the department, which experienced exponential growth under her leadership.
“When I started, there were 16 therapists. When I left, there were 96. Now there are more than 300,” she said.
In addition to her work with the school district, Bokelmann worked part-time with two otolaryngologists doing voice therapy.
Since arriving in Las Vegas more than 50 years ago, Bokelmann has watched UNLV grow into a bustling metropolitan university.
“I lived a half mile down Harmon [Avenue] from campus. My husband and I used to come to campus to watch foreign films,” she said. “I watched it grow from a couple of little buildings to big buildings. I’ve watched it change.”
Now 95, Bokelmann lives in Henderson and spends her time doing crossword puzzles and visiting with friends, family, and former coworkers. UNLV has been an integral part of her life in Las Vegas. Two of her four children attended the university, while her husband earned a master’s degree in business from the institution.
“I wouldn’t move back to Wisconsin for anything,” she said. “I’ve had a full life in Las Vegas.”