UC Berkeley News


Dozens of Berkeley employees pursue their college dreams, hitting the books after punching the clock

| 22 July 2004


From left, staffer-students Susan Roach, Michael Salcido, and Catalina Estrada
Wendy Edelstein photos

As an undergrad at the University of Oregon 25 years ago, Michael Salcido had it all planned out: He’d major in economics, then pursue an MBA at Northwestern. Instead, he says, “life came along,” derailing the completion of his undergraduate degree.

Though his area of study has shifted, Physical Plant – Campus Services’ 51-year-old lead plumber enrolled at Berkeley as a junior last fall to finish what he started so long ago and get his Bachelor of Arts degree.

Salcido is one of 75 staff members who attended Berkeley in 2003-04, either to complete an undergraduate education interrupted years ago or to begin that journey later in life. That number might well grow larger once staffers learn that two programs, the Reduced Fee Policy and the Career Development Opportunity Program (CDOP), enable them to attend Berkeley for free. [See sidebar for information about these programs.]

“Taking the first step [and applying] is the hardest,” says Helen Johnson, director of the Centers for Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parents. “Though staff may be intimidated to apply to Berkeley, they are among the best students we have here because they are usually highly motivated.”

Johnson has seen many staffers return to school at Berkeley, most as transfers from community college. “If you can do well at community college,” says Johnson, “you can do well here. What’s challenging is the pace — it’s faster. There’s also a higher level of analysis and synthesis here, but that’s something people can learn.”

In addition to getting admitted to the University, staff need to obtain release time from their department or unit to attend class during the workday. “Most departments allow it,” says Johnson, “because it can boost staff morale, self-confidence, and job performance.”

The Berkeleyan spoke with three staffers who are juggling their work and their personal lives to make time for something equally important to them: a Berkeley education.

Breaking through the barrier
Michael Salcido says he was “ecstatic, shocked, and overjoyed” when he learned he’d been accepted to Berkeley. His first semester was like “entering the unknown. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of performing at this level,” he says. “This is a world-class institution, and I was a little intimidated.”

Intimidated, perhaps — but clearly up to the challenge. After earning an A+ in an American Studies class for a paper he wrote about the forces that led to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Salcido says, “a huge weight lifted off my chest and I thought, ‘Okay, I guess I can do this.’”

The hardest thing about being back in school, he says, is the time commitment. “There are a lot of competing factors: I work 40 hours a week and have a family. One daughter just graduated from high school, two other daughters are married, and I have four grandkids. I’m involved in the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee and in the union as a shop steward. So I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire.”

Fortunately, Salcido’s supervisors have allowed him to flex his hours around class time. “What’s made it a positive experience is that I’ve had support all along the way,” he says, citing the Transfer and Re-entry Student Center, resource librarians, professors, and students he’s met in class, along with his work colleagues. “The overriding message,” says Salcido, “is that the University very much wants me to succeed, and that has surprised me. As an employee, it’s easy to feel like a second-class citizen here.” But, continues Salcido, who wears his staff and student I.D. cards back-to-back on a cord around his neck, “I feel like I’ve cracked through the barrier to the top.”

This time around, Salcido has decided to major in American Studies. He will focus on labor in America by taking classes in a variety of disciplines, including sociology, business, economics, and geography. “My life has revolved around labor for the last 20 years and that’s what I know,” he explains, “so I thought I’d apply all these disciplines to its study.” So far, he says, the experience of being in school has been “very, very rewarding. As a 51-year-old, I’ve grown socially, emotionally, and intellectually — much like an 18-year-old student would.”

Salcido expects to graduate by the time he’s 54. “I figure I’ll be the best-educated plumber at UC Berkeley. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll decide to get a master’s. Or maybe I won’t. But I know that if I choose to, I probably could.”

The 20-year plan
Susan Roach, office manager for the Office of Student Life, has been pursuing an undergraduate degree since the late 1980s. “I have a full-time job and a family of three kids, so there’s no way I can take more than one class a semester,” says Roach.

Twenty years ago, when she was 21, Roach met a student employee who suggested that she attend college. “It hadn’t occurred to me,” she says. “No one in my family has ever gone to college, other than my cousin, who has an A.A. degree.”

Roach acted on the suggestion, taking classes at area community colleges for years before deciding last spring to apply to Berkeley. Though a number of her colleagues in the Office of Student Life offered to read the personal statement she wrote to accompany her application, to ensure she was making a strong case for herself, she opted against that. “I felt like I wanted to do this on my own,” she says.

When the admissions office at Berkeley sent out notification letters for the Fall 2004 semester, Roach’s supervisor, Dean of Students Karen Kenney, called her at home to find out whether she had been admitted. “I wanted to share in the excitement of her being accepted,” says Kenney. “I immediately went out and bought her official collegiate gear: a Cal sweatshirt.”

Kenney says that the dean’s office has supported a lot of staff going to school: “I’ve found that in order for someone to succeed in going to school and balancing a full-time job, it’s not only the director or the supervisor who has to be supportive, but the entire team has to be encouraging as cheerleaders and as understanding colleagues.”

This summer Roach has jumped headfirst into the Berkeley pool by taking Education 190, a Summer Session course that meets twice a week for five hours a day. Though Roach says she expected as much, her Summer Session class has underscored the age gap between her and her Berkeley classmates. “When the instructor asked us about our experiences with education, the other students talked about high school,” she reports. “I told the class about how I educated my own children.” Roach, 41, has two sons, ages 22 and 16, and a 14-year-old daughter. “I’ve had students come up to me and say, ‘I appreciate your perspective; you come at it from a different angle.’”

Roach’s oldest son recently moved back to the Bay Area for a job. Though he hasn’t attended college, she says, he’s begun to consider doing so. “By showing him that you can work and go to school too, I’ve been a good influence on him,” says Roach.

Roach is pursuing an interdisciplinary degree, with an emphasis on education and human development. At community college she dropped out of classes where she felt she wasn’t learning anything or where the class offered an easy A. But at Berkeley, she says, “That’s not the point. I’m not getting this degree as a way to do other things. I’m doing it because I want to learn.”

The long road to Berkeley
Catalina Estrada, an administrative assistant in the College of Natural Resources (CNR), had been taking classes at Vista Community College for five years when her supervisor suggested she apply to UC. Once she took that advice and started to tackle the application, the same supervisor critiqued the first draft of her personal statement as being heavy on fact and light on sentiment. That’s when the 28-year-old sat down to tell her story with more feeling.

“It was a struggle, because I didn’t want the admissions people to feel sorry for me,” says Estrada. “I wanted to be admitted because I was qualified.”

Estrada’s concern that her story might provoke sympathy is understandable, given the intense poverty and hardship she has known. The second-youngest of nine children, Estrada comes from a town of about 200 people in the Mexican state of Nayarit. After completing junior high school, she was unable to continue her education because high school in Mexico costs money that her family didn’t have.

At age 16, Estrada traveled with her brother and her parents to visit her sisters and brothers in Southern California. When an older sister told her that in the U.S. she could attend high school for free, Estrada decided to enroll. The challenge to learn English excited her, she says, though it took five years to graduate because an adviser steered her toward classes that were easier but didn’t fulfill graduation requirements. “I think that when you’re an immigrant kid trying to learn English, they assume you’re dumb,” says Estrada.

After high school, she married, received her green card, and moved with her husband to Northern California in 1997, deferring her goal of attending college in order to support her husband while he did so. She got a job working on the Berkeley campus and later, when her marriage began to sour and a divorce looked likely, started taking classes at a community college.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2003, when Estrada applied to UC Santa Barbara and UCLA in addition to Berkeley. Though she didn’t get into the first two schools, she discovered she had been admitted to Cal when she checked the online notification system.

“The next day I called the Office of the Registrar,” reveals Estrada, “and said, ‘There’s a mistake. Are you sure I got in?’” Not only was Estrada admitted but, based on her GPA, she received a scholarship.

Since starting at Berkeley in Fall 2003, she has been able to scale back her schedule at CNR to 20 hours per week in order to take 16 units per semester. “It’s a lot of work being a student at Berkeley,” she says, “but anybody can do it.” This sentiment is a far cry from the way she felt her first semester when, she admits, “Sometimes I felt that I didn’t belong here. You get used to being at a junior college, and coming into a big university where everybody is really smart is hard.”

Once she completes her undergraduate work in anthropology, Estrada plans either to attend law school to focus on immigration law or to pursue a master’s degree in education. “I would like to help immigrants understand the law and what their rights are,” she says. “I remember coming from Mexico and not having that support. I want to give people what I didn’t get when I came here.”

Helen Johnson, who over the years has encouraged many students to explore their dreams and goals, was herself a re-entry undergraduate and graduate student here. “If staff meet the criteria for admission, almost always their experience as a student is transformative,” says Johnson, who is retiring from UC Berkeley at the end of this month. “This is good for the University too. Staff increase the diversity of our student population and bring a mature perspective to the classroom that expands understanding and knowledge. This is the best of a win-win situation.”