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UC Berkeley Web Feature

 Graduating seniors Vanessa Bailey (English) and Maria Bailey (sociology) take a break at Caffe Strada. (BAP photos)

"Look out, world!": Maria and Vanessa Bailey — mother and daughter, roommates, and partners in crime — are graduating

— When first we met Maria Bailey and her daughter Vanessa, they were giggly with nervous anticipation about starting their UC Berkeley careers together after transferring from Diablo Valley College (DVC). Two-and-a-half breakneck years later, and they're still giggling, interrupting each other and finishing each other's sentences.

The Baileys have not only survived — sharing a computer, clothes, lots of ramen noodles, and a car for commuting to campus from their house in Bay Point, Cal. — they've positively thrived. Maria, a sociology major, seems ten years younger and ten times more confident. "At first I was scared; I wasn't sure I belonged here. But now I know I do," she says. Prodded by her daughter, she admits she is just a hundredth of a point away from her grade-point-average goal of a 3.8.

Vanessa, an English major, quit her part-time job after her first year at Berkeley and finally began to enjoy college; last fall she took a four-month, round-the-world trip in which "she really became an independent adult," according to her proud mother. Now, thanks to Vanessa's semester-long detour, they'll be crossing the academic finish line in their caps and gowns together.

"It's been such a fun ride," Maria beams. "Exhausting, consuming, crazy—"

"—stressful," Vanessa chimes in.

"…but worth it," they finish at the same time, and laugh.

"So worth it!" crows Maria, clutching her daughter. "I can't believe we did it!"

A rocky road to Cal

It has been a long, arduous journey for both. While Maria, who'd emigrated from El Salvador in 1981, had always made education the No. 1 priority for her children — scrimping and saving to send Vanessa and her brother to a top private high school — she had never made time for college herself. After the kids were in their teens, she started night classes at DVC while continuing to work full-time at a tax consultancy.

Meanwhile, Vanessa had "wanted to go to Cal since I was old enough to know what college was." Her salutatorian-worthy high-school GPA, excellent SAT scores, sports participation, and 800 hours of community service would have seemed to make her acceptance a no-brainer. Yet she didn't get in. Bitterly disappointed, Vanessa still wanted to go to Berkeley enough that she chose to take the university's consolation offer: if she maintained a 3.3 at a community college for two years, she would be automatically admitted as a transfer. She enrolled at DVC. After the two years were up, both Baileys had 4.0 GPAs — and to Maria's shock, both were admitted to UC Berkeley as transfer students.

Vanessa has no regrets about being forced to take the roundabout route. "I think what a lot of high school seniors don't understand is that while you can have all this investment in your 'dream school,' you get in where you were meant to get in," she says philosophically. "I think Berkeley saw through me. I wasn't ready, and they could see that in my personal statement. I'm really glad they didn't accept me. I needed to go to DVC, because I wouldn't have appreciated Berkeley in the same way."

In September 2003 they started school together, and sat down with the NewsCenter at Caffe Strada to tell their story. (Read "Maria Bailey and daughter Vanessa are taking on UC Berkeley together.") Back then, only a few weeks into classes, they were still in the honeymoon phase with their new alma mater. Reconvening at Strada six semesters later, the love affair still appears to be going strong — at least for Maria.

"This is a labor of love for her. Basically, if my mother could stay in school forever, she would," says Vanessa. She, on the other hand, is ready to graduate. "I will not miss papers or midterms. But she will."

Maria admits that she isn't quite ready to say good-bye to Berkeley. "I just read Simone de Beauvoir. I just got my first inkling of feminist theory and now I have to leave?" she exclaims.

After attending a class with her mother last week, Vanessa reports that Maria still sits in the front row, just as she did her first semester at Berkeley. "Only now she takes up three seats, with her seven highlighters and her tape recorder and stuff," she teases. Maria used to torment Vanessa by playing tapes of her DVC lectures in the car as a study aid, but "now she's high tech, she has a digital recorder and she downloads them to her computer, where she can listen to them over and over."

In fact, when Maria introduced Vanessa after class to Michael Burawoy, one of her favorite sociology professors, Vanessa told him that she felt like she already knew him, because his voice was always booming through the house. Maria says that she thoroughly enjoyed his spirited teaching style: the two semesters of social theory she took with Burawoy "challenged me intellectually and all the theorists he introduced me to — Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Fanon, Weber, Durkheim, Faoucalt, de Beauvoir, MacKinnon, and Collins — gave me a theoretical framework for understanding the world I live in and the possibilities for a better world."

Vanessa's all-time favorite course was a senior seminar about Edgar Allen Poe that she took with Samuel Otter, associate professor of English; she enjoyed his teaching style so much that, even after her requirement was fulfilled, she signed up for two more senior seminars. "I would take any class he was teaching because I know he would make it interesting," she explains. "He always ties themes together and is never concerned with trying to make things difficult or tricky, but rather tries to have students engage with the reading." She says she's also grateful to Jennifer Miller, associate professor of English, who took Vanessa aside and told her to write the way that she spoke, which is "the best advice about my writing I've ever received."

Ironing things out

The bond between the two of them seems stronger than ever, more like best friends than mother and daughter. "We're partners in crime," Vanessa says. "Believe me, she doesn't have time to worry about where I am or what time I'm coming home. She doesn't cook for me. There are dishes in the sink and clothes everywhere, because we're both slobs and too busy to care."

'We're partners in crime. Believe me, she doesn't have time to worry about where I am or what time I'm coming home. She doesn't cook for me. There are dishes in the sink and clothes everywhere, because we're both slobs and too busy to care.'
-Vanessa Bailey on her relationship with her mother, Maria

"We clean up when midterms are over," says Maria, perhaps a little embarrassed by this admission. "We have our priorities straight."

What's the biggest argument they've ever had? The Baileys are at a rare loss for words. They look at each other, perplexed.

"We have to think of one. I feel stupid saying we never fight," says Vanessa. She drums her fingers on the table, and offers that sometimes they would get annoyed at each other through a failure to communicate their complicated logistics, for example, when Maria would have her cell phone off and not get Vanessa's message that the car was parked in a different spot at the BART station.

"There was that time I wore your new shirt," suggests Maria.

"Oh yeah!" Vanessa brightens. "I had a brand new shirt that I bought to go to London for spring break this year. I washed and ironed it — which is a big deal for me — and hung it in the closet the day before I was leaving. And she wore it! I came home and it had cat hair all over. I was so mad! I said she had to wash it before she went to bed."

"So I did," shrugs Maria. "It was no big deal."

That was the worst fight they had in five combined years of living together as college roommates?

"We really don't fight," Vanessa insists. "Maybe it's because we're hardly around each other. We're like ships passing in the night."

Ships sporting suspiciously similar outfits, that is. They wear the same size shoes, pants, and tops. While Vanessa complains that much of the "sharing" is one-sided — "she even wears my jewelry!" — she acknowledges with a grin that the swapping does have its uses: "When I want something that's kind of expensive, I just tell her, 'But we can share it,' which usually works."

Finances have been a constant struggle, which is why Vanessa held onto her part-time job in Bay Point, working as a teacher's aide at her old elementary school, for her first year at Berkeley. "But trying to work, and commuting, is not conducive to a good college experience," she says. After going straight from school to work, "I was too tired to read, I would come home and just crash." Once she stopped working, she realized, "Oh, so this is what everyone's talking about! School really is interesting!"

Maria, after taking a leave of absence from her job for her first semester at Berkeley, went back to work part time. Although her employer had initially been supportive of her getting a college degree, she was laid off in April of 2005. "That was really tough because we lost our health insurance, too," she says.

But the Baileys scraped by with the help of grants and scholarships, and "by eating a lot of Top Ramen and popcorn. You just do it," shrugs Vanessa.

Asked whether she minded not being able to live in the dorms or with friends, Vanessa shakes her head in an emphatic negative. "There's no point in thinking about the other path because it just wasn't possible. I wasn't going to run my family into the ground so I could live some mythical college experience," she says. "I don't know what I missed, but I know what I had. And what I had was awesome."

A semester abroad — in 20 countries

The high point of the last few years for Vanessa was inarguably awesome: last fall, she spent four months traveling through 20 countries with her best friend. Her friend's mother travels a lot for business, and finally accumulated enough miles to purchase two around-the-world airline tickets as a graduation present for her daughter, who tapped Vanessa as her lucky traveling companion. All she would have to pay for would be her day-to-day expenses.

"I had to go, even if it meant staying another semester," says Vanessa. "Besides, I think my mother would have killed me if I didn't."

Maria nods. "I said, 'Whatever we have to do, we're going to make this happen. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will change you as a human being,'" Maria recalls. "And it did."

Vanessa worked two full-time jobs — at a summer camp and at Restoration Hardware — over the summer beforehand to save up. She and her friend went all over Europe and to Egypt, India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere by air, train, and bus. Asked her favorite moments, she is momentarily stumped. "I really liked China. Other places I could imagine myself going, but when we were standing on the Great Wall, I thought, 'I cannot believe I am really here,'" she offers. She had a similar feeling in Nepal, where they managed to trek up a mountain in their crammed three days. "We could see Mt. Everest. It was incredible. I mean, Mt. Diablo had been it for me until then."

Vanessa at Great Wall
Vanessa Bailey (right) poses with her best friend at the Great Wall of China.

The hardest place Vanessa visited was India, which she says was so overwhelming at first — the crowds, the poverty, the traffic — that she wanted to get right back on the plane. "But after two weeks, the things that bothered me at first had become kind of endearing," she says. "It sounds corny, but I think everyone should have to go to India: it teaches you something about yourself."

Vanessa is now "much more aware of poverty on a mass scale," says Maria, adding that her daughter is also "more curious about the world, and a lot more independent."

Vanessa agrees that the trip opened her eyes to a lot of things. No one Vanessa met believed the petite, coffee-colored girl was American but didn't question her 6-foot-tall, blonde friend's nationality, even though "I kept telling people we're the same amount American" — both were born in the United States, although her friend's father is British and her mother is from New Zealand.

"You know, I watched 'Punky Brewster' as a kid and played with Glo Worms. You cannot get more American!" exclaims Vanessa, still clearly irritated by the memory of those she encountered who insisted she was Latin American, not American. "In El Salvador they would not see me as Salvadoran, they'd see me as a American."

The experience made her think a lot about "who gets access to national identity, and the predicament that Europe's in," she says. "You know, your family can have lived in France for three generations but never be 'French," never be seen as part of the history of France or have access to the same opportunities."

And Maria is right, her daughter is a lot more confident. "Now I know that I can handle any situation. Once you've been lost in India, unable for the life of you to remember where you were staying…I mean, we were asking all these cab drivers if they knew a big white hotel by the water!" Vanessa laughs. "I have always been a super-cautious person, but now I'm like, 'Look out, world!'"

Ciao, Baileys

Bitten by the travel bug, Vanessa is eager to go back to Europe. She will be working at her old elementary school over the summer and studying for the LSATs so she can apply to law school in the fall — all the while "save-save-saving for another trip to Europe," she says. She hopes to figure out a way to live in London for the spring while she's waiting to hear from law school. Although she isn't sure which area of law she wants to study, she says she's just always known she would be a lawyer of some kind. "Now I am thinking maybe I can combine my love of literature with law by working in publishing," Vanessa says. "But who knows, that could change."

Maria too is headed to Europe, for a post-graduation, study-abroad summer in Siena, where she will live with an Italian family and continue her studies. (Professor Arlie Hochschild's Sociology of the Family class was her other favorite course.) "This summer is my last hurrah," she says. After that, she'll be looking for a job. She'd like to go to graduate school, but feels she has "too many responsibilities right now — a mortgage, car payment, loans to pay back," she explains.

Instead, Maria plans to learn about the business side of commercial real estate, so that she can earn enough money to pay bills and invest the profits in an after-school education program for underprivileged public-school kids. As busy as Maria has been with school, she has made time to volunteer at a crisis center in Concord. There, she met a Mexican woman with three kids born in the U.S. and attending public school; a recent immigrant, the woman can't read or write, and her children's education is suffering as a result. The family is the subject of a research paper that Maria is finishing for sociology class, and the inspiration for her after-school program idea.

"We all have potential, but I think we're just not all given the same opportunities," she says. "I want to do something about that."

Her dream is to organize and fund the program, but not to teach it. Which is a good thing, in her daughter's opinion. "No one would want to take classes from her," Vanessa jokes. "She's way too mean. She wants everyone to take school as seriously as she does."

Which is not such a bad thing, her daughter freely admits. And when the two Baileys walk across the stage next week at Commencement Convocation, holding hands — and probably sniffling — "I am going to look over and say, 'Thanks Mom, I wouldn't be here without you,'" says Vanessa.

Her mother corrects her, beaming: "We did it together."