Marking a Milestone
Classmates Are Family's First to Earn Diplomas
By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Right behind him will be the second -- his 42-year-old mother, Cheryl.
On their way to commencement, mother and son took many of the same classes, helped each other on homework and crammed for tests together. But they arrived at Berkeley by very different paths.
Cheryl's road to the Greek Theater commencement began in 1974, when she enrolled at Sacramento State University. During her freshman year, she got married and soon became pregnant. Reluctant to leave school, but feeling she had little choice, she dropped out of college before her sophomore year.
"At that time," recalled Cheryl, "you didn't see women on campus who were pregnant or married with children."
She and her husband soon divorced and she became a single parent. Desperate to return to school, she tried attending a junior college when Doug entered kindergarten. But caring for a small child, working full time and going to school proved too difficult.
Instead, Cheryl devoted herself to rearing Doug, vowing to return to school when he entered college. "Education has always been important to me and I tried to instill that passion for learning in Doug as I was raising him," she said.
Eighteen years later, in 1994, her dream came true: Doug was accepted to Berkeley, and Cheryl started studies at Vista Community College, just a few blocks from the Berkeley campus.
Through the Program for Adults Continuing Education (PACE) -- which offers flexible schedules, low tuition and classes structured specifically for adult students -- Cheryl aced her way to an associate's degree, graduating valedictorian of her class. She planned to transfer to Cal State Hayward, a partner in the PACE Program, to complete her undergraduate degree.
But Doug thought she had the academic prowess to get into Berkeley, and convinced her to apply.
She didn't think she could swing Berkeley while holding down her job as office manager for a local engineering firm. "But I told her my major, American Studies, was flexible enough to accommodate part-time work," said Doug.
Cheryl applied and, to her amazement, was accepted.
When she discovered that her son, by chance, was in one of her first classes, Cheryl considered dropping the course. "I didn't want him to worry that I was watching his every move, like if he walked in late or missed class," said Cheryl.
Ironically, it was she who came late to the first class, after getting lost on the way.
Sitting next to each other on the first mid-term exam, they worried about each other -- and both of them scored poorly. After that, they made a point of sitting apart in class, though they often did schoolwork together elsewhere.
Cheryl and Doug have always been close, but their shared struggle to meet the academic challenges of Berkeley strengthened that bond.
"Some people act differently around their parents, but not me," said Doug. "I can talk to her about anything; she's my friend."
When Doug introduced her to classmates, many at first couldn't believe that the youthful-looking student was his mother. Once convinced, they stopped calling her Cheryl and respectfully referred to her as Mrs. Cornelius. Some sought her advice on such thorny issues as breaking up with a boyfriend or telling parents graduation would be delayed.
Though she liked the camaraderie with younger students, Cheryl sometimes craved the company of others her own age. "Every now and then, I would go sit in the lounge at the Re-Entry Program office, just so I could see and talk to older students with life experiences similar to mine," she recalled. Berkeley's re-entry program provides services for students who, like Cheryl, are returning to college after an absence of five years or more.
Doug was set to graduate one semester ahead of his mother, but at the start of his senior year, he came up with a radical idea -- to stretch out his studies so he could graduate with his mom. That way, said Doug, "we could celebrate our achievement -- being the first in the family to get college degrees -- together."
Cheryl was so honored by the gesture that she decided Doug should cross the stage first at the May 21 ceremony.
"He was generous enough to wait for me when he could have graduated a lot sooner," said Cheryl. "The least I can do is wait while he gets his diploma first."