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Mother and daughter take on Berkeley
They live, commute, and study together — and couldn’t be happier about it

| 08 October 2003


mother, daughter

Vanessa (left) and Maria Bailey, a daughter-and-mother pair of junior transfers to Berkeley, are settling in to the routine of college life. Says Maria: “Berkeley to me has always been the epitome of an excellent school that also has a diverse environment, both culturally and economically. I knew it would be perfect for Vanessa.” And for herself? “I just want to get as much as I can from these brilliant people!”
Bonnie Azab Powell photo

When Vanessa Bailey received her rejection letter from UC Berkeley two-and-a-half years ago, both she and her mother, Maria, were in shock. They had long been pinning their dreams on her acceptance at Berkeley.

“I’ve wanted to go to Cal since I was old enough to know what college was,” says Vanessa.

Her mother, who emigrated from El Salvador to California in 1981, instilled a love of education in her daughter. “As an immigrant, when I first came here, I saw that for minorities, a good education makes all the difference,” says Maria. “I was going to make sure my kids got that chance.”

To that end, she started working as a secretary 17 years ago to pay for Vanessa’s private school, since the best public schools were located in neighborhoods where the Baileys could not afford to live.

Vanessa excelled at school; her excellent SAT scores, three years on the water polo team, and 800 hours of community service seemed to make her a shoo-in for pretty much any university she looked at. Harvard and Brown and other top Ivy League colleges sent letters practically pleading with her to apply.

The rejection letter from Berkeley offered only one shred of consolation: If Vanessa were to go to community college for two years and maintain a 3.3 GPA, she would be automatically accepted as a junior transfer student. Although Vanessa could have applied to one of the private schools that had earlier recruited her, she clung to her desire to attend Berkeley.

She decided to enroll at nearby Diablo Valley College, where her mother had been taking night classes for two years while continuing to work. Although Maria struggled initially at Diablo Valley, her self-discipline and organization skills ultimately triumphed.

Vanessa found Diablo Valley much less challenging academically than her elite high school, but eye opening on a personal level. “It was actually a great thing that Berkeley didn’t let me in right away, because Diablo Valley gave me a whole new perspective. Everyone can go there. In your class you can sit next to a 60-year-old, a welfare mom, whoever. To me that’s part of the whole [public] education experience.”

Two for one, and one for all
At the end of Vanessa’s two years and Maria’s (by that time) four years at Diablo Valley, both Baileys had 4.0 GPAs. Vanessa had only needed a 3.3 to be able to transfer, so she knew she would be starting at Berkeley in fall 2003 as planned.

Encouraged by her perfect GPA, Maria decided to apply to Berkeley herself as a re-entry student. Given Vanessa’s first experience, she didn’t have much confidence. The letter she received from Berkeley was as much a shock as Vanessa’s had been, only reversed. Maria had been accepted; she and Vanessa would be starting school as junior transfers at the same time.

There were complications: Maria and her husband were in the middle of a divorce and money was tight. Both Baileys began madly applying for scholarships, with Maria garnering the lion’s share. Maria took a leave of absence until January from her job at Ernst & Young in order to get accustomed to the rigors of Berkeley. Her employers not only agreed to the sabbatical, they even lent her an office laptop that she and Vanessa share for doing schoolwork.

Vanessa claims not to mind living at home with her mother and commuting to Berkeley from Bay Point together early every morning in their shared car. It is not the freedom that most high-achieving high school students envision when they picture college. “Once I found out we were both going to get to be Berkeley students, it was like, ‘OK, how can we make this work.’ I never thought, ‘Oh bummer, my mom’s going to school with me — how will I have fun!’ I like going to school with her. We don’t have any classes together, but I wouldn’t mind that at all. She takes the best notes!”

Sather Gate opens
Even with the semester firmly in swing, both Baileys are still in their honeymoon phase with their new alma mater. Maria even gets misty-eyed when asked about what she hopes to get out of her two (or more) coming years here. “This is a dream for me, learning, becoming, discovering. I want it to be an experience that takes me to the next level as a person,” she says. Having declared her major in sociology, Maria intends to someday study more ways that minorities can succeed.

As for Vanessa, she’s majoring in English with an eye toward law school eventually. At the moment, she’s both eager and terrified about finally putting her years of preparation to the test. “I turned in my first paper this morning and I was freaking out,” she confesses. “This is what I have been training for my whole life. It’s like an Olympic event. But I think I have the right tools, thanks to my mom.”