From the Pilot:

- Latin, the ancient Roman language that's long been dissed as dead, comes alive in Paula Mathias' eyes.

Virgil. Ovid. Cicero. The names make Mathias smile so wide she almost laughs at the joy they bring her.

"I get really excited talking about it," she said.

On Saturday, the 50-year-old former nurse became the first graduate to earn a degree in Latin from Virginia Wesleyan College. About 280 students received degrees in the ceremony.

Virginia has long had a strong reputation for its high school and university Latin programs, said Lynn Sawlivich, an assistant professor of classics at Virginia Wesleyan. But until recently, no college in Hampton Roads offered it as a degree, he said.

That changed when Sawlivich started Virginia Wesleyan's program four years ago - about the same time one of his future students was planning a career change.

Mathias had worked for years as a nurse and stayed home to raise her son, Lee. After a divorce she decided to enroll in the classical studies program at Virginia Wesleyan. She planned to use the degree to join the priesthood in the Episcopalian Church.

A basic language course in Latin quickly changed her mind.

"When I opened a Latin book, it was like - ahh - I knew this is what I wanted to do," she said, smiling again.

Mathias earned her degree after three years as a full-time student.

The schoolwork was challenging, but nothing like the day she drove her son to Richmond to deploy with the National Guard.

Lee Mathias served a year in Iraq driving a gun truck for convoy security. He returned in December 2005.

"That was the hardest - much harder than studying," Paula Mathias said.

Now, with her son back home and her degree in hand, Mathias hopes to spread her passion as a high school teacher.

She shouldn't have trouble finding a job in the current market, said Kathleen Earles, a Latin teacher at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach.

"A lot of the Latin teachers are older people who have kept going because we don't want the programs to end," said Earles, who is retiring after teaching the language for 35 years. "Latin teachers are a hot commodity."

Sawlivich and Earles praise Latin as a tool to improve one's grasp of the English language and boost SAT scores. About 90 percent of English words larger than two syllables have Latin roots, Earles said. Much of the language used in law and medicine come from Latin, too.

Mathias has always loved classical literature but always had to read the English translations. Now she's getting all the meaning and description that only Latin can capture.

"It just brings it alive," she said.