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Center's support helps student / mom / entrepreneur make the grade

– It took Sarah Bonet half her life to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, but on May 23 - 16 years after she began - Bonet will receive her undergraduate degree, in anthropology.

The young mother and former dot-com success story credits the Centers for Transfer, Re-Entry and Student Parents with giving her the support she needed to complete her education and, now, to pursue a longtime dream - studying poetry in the highly-regarded graduate program at San Francisco State University.

 Sarah Bonet
Sarah Bonet (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Bonet began her studies at UC Berkeley in 1987, when she was 16, but dropped out in 1989. She got married and moved to North Carolina with her husband. When the couple returned to California in 1991, they had a small child, Julian (now 12), but Bonet decided to give higher education another try and reenrolled at UC Berkeley.

But being a mother and a student, especially without a support network, proved impossible for Bonet, and she left school again.

With time on her hands, she started an online magazine, Digiratti, to showcase her art and writing, as well as that of her friends. The next thing she knew, she was in demand for her Web skills - first at Autodesk and then at Apple Computer.

At the same time, Digiratti kept growing, so Bonet soon gave up other work to devote herself fulltime to the magazine. From an independent e-zine, Digiratti grew into a software development company that had five partners, more than 100 employees and six-figure projects. There were plush offices, parties on yachts and 80-hour workweeks. Then came the dot-com bust, and Digiratti went the way of so many companies.

In 1997, separated from her husband and tired of Silicon Valley, Bonet moved to Miami and worked as the technology manager at The Miami Herald newspaper. She then became the CEO of another start-up, but this one, too, went under, taking everything she had with it. In 2001 she became pregnant and returned to California and her family in Petaluma.

She also headed back to UC Berkeley, but this time her experience as a mother and student was quite different. In 2000, the campus had opened the Centers for Transfer, Re-Entry and Student Parents in the CÚsar E. Chavez Student Center. Bonet fit into all three categories.

"These are people who know what I'm going through," Bonet said recently as she sat at her desk at the center, where she has a work-study job. "The staff and other students here helped me negotiate financial aid, housing - all the things I didn't know were there." She also loves the attention fellow students and staff at the center give to her 13-month old daughter, Sofia, who occasionally accompanies her to the office.

When Bonet had doubts about being able to continue her schoolwork, the center cheered her on. "When I'd say, 'I can't do this,' they'd say, 'Yes you can.'" Her support network at the center - several student parents who met almost every Friday - convinced her to pursue her Master's in Fine Arts.

Members of the group "harassed each other until we filled out our applications and submitted them," she said.

Sereeta Alexander, another student parent and a senior in psychology, was part of Bonet's support system. She recalled how terrified Bonet was to read her poetry at a student talent show. So Alexander, also shy about performing before an audience, agreed to read her poetry with Bonet. They approached the stage together and alternated reading their poems.

"I would not have done it if she hadn't been there for me," said Alexander.

Having always loved to write, Bonet feels her education at UC Berkeley has given her the chance to fulfill her true destiny. Once she gets her graduate degree, she hopes to work as a high school or community college teacher and continue writing poems and plays.