Her immigrant parents hadn't gone to college and thought her desire to do so was a bit strange. But as long as it didn't cost them anything, they were fine with it.
That's one reason Dr. Nemerowicz radiates respect for students who must pinch every penny or tread an unfamiliar path as the first in their families to go to college.
The young women at Pine Manor College, located on a bucolic campus on the outskirts of Boston, call Nemerowicz by her first name – something she encourages even though she's president of the college. Long a haven for privileged white women, under her leadership Pine Manor has been transformed into one of the nation's most diverse liberal arts colleges.
But at Pine Manor, and dozens of small colleges like it around the country, students are supported and valued for the life experiences they bring to the classroom.
Now Nemerowicz is drawing on her experience here to answer President Obama's call to restore the United States as a world leader in producing college graduates, particularly by raising the number of degrees earned by underrepresented groups.
"The need for us to find solutions to really grave problems in the world ... means that we can't waste talent," she says. "The work of increasing graduation rates in this country – that's what's burning in my heart."
Only 18 percent of African-American and 12 percent of Hispanic adults have completed four years of college, compared with more than 30 percent of white non-Hispanics, according to a recent report by the Lumina Foundation. The foundation's goal is to help raise the percentage of US adults with college degrees from 39 percent today to 60 percent by 2025.
Colleges like Pine Manor can play a big role in meeting that goal, Nemerowicz says. It's the kind of work they've been doing – somewhat invisibly – for years.
Last spring, she held a "Yes We Must" summit at Pine Manor, bringing together presidents from 11 small liberal arts colleges and education groups that serve low-income and minority students. They shared ways to make college more affordable and raise graduation rates – and launched a Yes We Must coalition at about 100 schools.
"What's impressed me most about Gloria is the fact that she's stayed on top of this relentlessly and that she has a genuine desire to share this as widely as she can," says Gary Bonvillian, president of Thomas University in Thomasville, Ga. "If you take any one of our schools individually, we're not powerhouses ... but together we've created quite a strong voice."
Pine Manor keeps tuition relatively low ($21,000, plus room and board, compared with an average of $34,000 for four-year private colleges in New England) and offers plenty of financial aid.
But perhaps more important is the way each student is aided by a team of faculty members, student-life staff, and even a financial adviser.
Pine Manor students often work longer at part-time jobs and have more family challenges than the average college student. So if they get off track academically, extending help quickly is vital, says Pine Manor Dean Nia Lane Chester. Nemerowicz has shown "how to ... involve every member of the community ... so that students really feel like they're in a place where there's support for them," she says.
At the end of this academic year Nemerowicz will step down after 15 years as Pine Manor president– a bittersweet decision. She chokes up when students tell her how much she'll be missed.
"Pine Manor found me," says Maria Inés Peniche, a freshman student, at a recent lunch in the president's office.
Ms. Peniche was a senior at Revere (Mass.) High School who dreamed of working for the United Nations. But she was bumping up against the barriers she faced as an "undocumented student," she says. She was brought to the US by her family from Mexico when she was starting fifth grade.
"I was just going to stay stuck working in McDonald's for the rest of my life, but [the Pine Manor recruiter] ... told me that it did not matter that I was undocumented – that Pine Manor wanted me ... and that we would see how to pay for school."
When Nemerowicz leaves Pine Manor she plans to focus her energy on the fledgling Yes We Must coalition and helping other aspiring students like Peniche.
Nemerowicz's study of sociology and an early career as a social worker opened her eyes to social inequities she couldn't ignore, she says. Her drive to widen access to college and hike graduation rates is fueled by the same zeal that motivated her participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"You're part of the change," she says to Peniche and five other students gathered for lunch. "We can turn this country around in 10 years, 15 years, just through this surge of graduates who are going to go on and serve their communities."