Spending an hour in a room with Ioana “Coca” Vladislav pretty much goes like this: a conversation that hits an endless number of subjects, intertwined with jokes about aspects of her life.
She introduces her white cane as her boyfriend while laughing. If you wanted to restock some of your makeup, she’s got you covered there, too. “I’m a Mary Kay consultant now,” she said, proudly.
Vladislav is a University Recreation and Wellness Center massage therapist. If you ask anyone at the Recwell to point you to her office, they do so without hesitation.
“She refers to herself as our ‘Grandma-ma’ and she has given me boy advice before,” said Elizabeth Odness, a junior studying kinesiology.
Vladislav, who is “35” years old, grew up in Romania and was an active athlete. She was a gymnast, ran track and field and bowled. At the same time, she learned to play chess and several musical instruments as part of her school curriculum. She's legally blind but has an enhanced sense of touch.
“You cannot only study, you have to have something extracurricular,” said Vladislav of her time in school. “I love chess to death but it's so boring when the other person takes a long time to move.”
She began learning these skills in second or third grade, she said, and it added to her love of learning. This gave her a holistic view of the world.
“We learned so early because they wanted to develop the brain, develop critical thinking, develop the future for how to teach blind kids,” Vladislav said.
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at traditional Eastern European cooking, Grandma Coca will detail any of her recipes for you. Give her any subject and she'll always have something to say.
“She could talk for days,” said Justin Stacey, a sophomore studying economics. “One time [another student worker] was walking with her and she bumped into one of the machines and was like ‘What is this nonsense?’”
She came to the University of Minnesota in 1999 to work at Boynton and moved to the Recwell in August of 2018. She became a certified massage therapist in the U.S. in 1990 and has had her own private practice since then, which she still operates in Eden Prairie.
“When I came here 30 years ago, I had to find a job,” Vladislav said. “I went to around 300 chiropractors and none of them hired me when they found out I had good experience because you can take their business that way. So anyway, I was mad at them and I opened my own business.”
After opening her business, Vladislav came to the University to take classes in history and American Indian studies. A friend who was working as a massage therapist at Boynton approached her and asked if Vladislav wanted to take over her job.
Vladislav happily provides her massage therapy services to students and Recwell members every day. While she massages you, she explains what she’s pressing down on, which muscles of yours seem tight and how you might be able to remedy that a little on your own.
“When some people come in, they are very stressed out. You have the option to have a quiet place here, or let’s talk. I have to respect that because someone can come in and say, ‘I have a test in two hours I want to relax.’ They want their mind to be free,” she said.
“But all the kids — I want them not to whine.”
Grandma Coca, whose nickname ironically translates to “baby doll,” is students’ “campus grandma.” She’ll offer you homemade borscht and life advice when you need it, but in the end, she’ll definitely tell it to you straight.