Mother and son to graduate May 21 from UC Berkeley, both will be first in family to receive college diploma

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--When Doug Cornelius walks across the stage of the Greek Theater this month to receive his diploma from the University of California, Berkeley, the 22-year-old senior will be the first in his family to graduate from college.

The second person in his family to finish college will be right behind him - his 42-year-old mother, Cheryl.

Not only are mother and son graduating on the same day, but with the same degree, in American Studies. They also did homework and crammed for tests together outside of class.

But there are few similarities when it comes to how they arrived at UC Berkeley.

Cheryl began her studies back in 1974 at Sacramento State University. While in school, she got married, became pregnant, and dropped out of college after her freshman year. She was reluctant to leave but felt she had little choice.

"At that time," said Cheryl, "you didn't see women on campus who were pregnant or married with children."

Cheryl and Doug's father soon divorced, and Cheryl became a single parent. Desperate to return to school, she tried attending a junior college when Doug entered kindergarten. But taking care of a small child, working full time and going to school proved too difficult.

Sacrificing her own ambitions, Cheryl devoted her time to rearing Doug, vowing to return to school when he was grown and entering college himself. "Education has always been important to me," she said, "and I tried to instill that passion for learning in Doug as I was raising him."

Eighteen years later, her dream came true. In 1994, Doug was accepted to UC Berkeley, and Cheryl started her studies at Vista Community College in Berkeley.

In 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 and graduated as class valedictorian. She planned to transfer to Cal State Hayward, a partner in the PACE Program, to complete her undergraduate degree.

Doug, however, thought his mother had the academic prowess to get into UC Berkeley and encouraged her to apply.

"She didn't think she could swing Berkeley because of her job" as the office manager of an engineering firm in Berkeley, said Doug. But he convinced her that his major, American Studies, was flexible enough to accommodate a part-time job.

Cheryl applied to Cal and, to her amazement, was accepted.

By chance, her son was in one of her first classes. Her initial reaction was to drop the course. "I didn't want him to worry that I was watching his every move," said Cheryl, "like if he walked in late or missed class."

Ironically, Cheryl, not Doug, was late to the first class. She got lost looking for the room.

Mother and son sat next to each other during the first midterm exam, but each was so worried about how the other was doing that they both received poor scores. After that, they made a point of sitting apart. But outside the classroom, they often studied, crammed for tests and worked on projects together.

Cheryl and Doug always have been close, but their shared struggle to meet the academic challenges of UC Berkeley strengthened that bond. They supported each other both academically and emotionally. Other students were surprised at how well the two got along.

"Some people act differently around their parents, but not me," said Doug. "I can talk to her about anything. She's my friend."

Doug introduced his mom to classmates, but many of them didn't believe the youthful-looking woman could be his mother. Once convinced, they stopped calling her Cheryl and respectfully referred to her as Mrs. Cornelius. Doug said she was like a mom to the other students, and they often asked for her advice on thorny issues such as breaking up with a boyfriend or telling their parents they won't be graduating on time.

Despite the camaraderie with younger students, Cheryl often craved the company of people her own age. "Every now and then," she said, " 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." UC 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 beginning of his senior year he came up with a radical idea - to stretch out his studies so he could graduate with his mother. That way, said Doug, "we could celebrate our achievement of being the first in the family to get college degrees, together."

Cheryl was so honored by Doug's gesture that she decided her son should cross the stage first at the May 21 ceremony, which starts at 9 a.m. in the Greek Theater.

"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."


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