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When UC Berkeley Isn’t the Golden Ticket You Thought It Was

Students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley camp...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., April 21, 2017.

On the day before his graduation ceremony from UC Berkeley, I meet up with a college senior and his parents as he shows them Sather Gate. It's the symbolic entrance to campus — and a lot more. We are not naming him to protect his relationship with his family.

"Every time I go through this gate,” he tells his parents, “I remember where I came from. I remember everything that you guys have taught me. And it's always a reminder to remember where my roots are.”

His parents have no idea how rocky their son's road to graduation has been. The two are immigrants from the Philippines who raised their kids in Southern California. He’s the first in his family to attend a four-year college, and his parents have called him every day to remind him to brush his teeth and to pray.

“He’s the best,” says his mom. “The best son anybody [can] wish [for].”

But he has never told his parents about the challenges he faced at Cal, starting the end of his freshman year. Obstacles so big they could have prevented him from getting his diploma.

He graduated as class president from high school with a 4.57 GPA. He's meticulous, organized. The kind of guy who wears a blazer to school and presented me with a granola bar on a neatly folded napkin when I went to interview him.

"There's something in his spirit," says UC Berkeley counselor Yuki Burton. "When he walks in the room he will shift the energy, his laughter, his smile. He's always checking in to see if you need something: 'Do you want water?' 'Do you want to sit down?' He's just genuinely that kind of a person."

Coming out of high school, he thought he'd be a good fit for the military.

"I saw it as the opportunity for me to really claim a strong Filipino identity where there's not a lot of representation," he says.

He wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. But then he visited UC Berkeley as a high school senior. He was sold.

"I never felt so at home with Filipino-Americans before," he recalls. "After realizing the home that I could have here at UC Berkeley, there was nothing else I ever wanted."

During his first year, a patchwork of financial aid and loans was barely enough to cover his living expenses and Bay Area rent. But he had mapped out a plan for the rest of his time at Cal.

"I envisioned working very hard in Army ROTC," he says.

Army ROTC scholarships can pay for tuition plus living expenses. During his freshman year, he sweated through the early-morning ROTC training sessions, losing 20 pounds.

He had a strong GPA and soon met all the physical fitness, body weight and class requirements. “I had everything checked off,” he says.

He felt sure he’d get the scholarship.

But he hadn’t thought about one thing. The summer after his freshman year, he said, he got a letter from the Department of Defense, saying his eyesight wasn’t good enough for military service. He was technically legally blind in one eye. He had long compensated with the other eye, so it never occurred to him that his vision would prevent him from getting into the military.

That shattered his world. Now how was he going to pay for school? What about his dream of joining the military?

“I was falling,” he says. "No matter how hard I tried, all I saw was failure after failure." That was something this super-achiever in high school had no idea how to grapple with.

No Plan B

Disheartened, he dropped out of ROTC his sophomore year. The problem with his Plan A was that he didn’t think he would ever need a Plan B.

He plummeted into a deep depression. His grades started slipping. He was struggling to pay his rent and bills with a job at a campus cafeteria. He ended up on academic probation, making student loans even harder to get.

The person he knew was slipping away, and he didn’t know how to work out his feelings.

“I kept everything bottled in,” he says. “I didn't know how to ask for help.”

He withdrew from UC Berkeley to go to community college, where tuition was much cheaper. But now that he was no longer enrolled at Cal, he had to pay back thousands of dollars in aid he'd received.

So he started working at an Italian restaurant, wiping tables and working the cash register. That brought him an unexpected, different kind of education.

"It taught me a lot of humility," he says. "Hard work is sometimes its own reward."

Eventually, he got promoted to assistant manager. Being around the restaurant workers, mostly immigrants from Latin America, made him feel like he was part of a community again. They joked with him, fed him, made sure he knew they had his back when they saw he was down.

But they also opened his eyes: Some were undocumented, working long hours without overtime.

“It gave me a whole entire realization of the privileges that I had as a U.S. citizen,” he says.

He saw that because his co-workers were undocumented, they couldn’t fight for their employment rights. That gave him a new goal: to become an immigration lawyer, to help low-wage workers like his friends at the restaurant.

And that gave him a reason to return to Cal.

A New Beginning

He decided to major in legal studies. But first, he had to figure out how to pay for it, what classes to take, all of it.

He turned to Yuki Burton for help. She’s a counselor with the campus Educational Opportunity Program, helping students from low-income, first-generation families. She said she knows it wasn't easy to return to school and ask for help.

"That takes a lot of courage, for a student to come here and admit, 'I don't know what I'm doing. Where do I start? I'm confused. I'm embarrassed about being on academic probation,' and just even addressing some of that shame," says Barton. "But he’s a really strong person, and that strength, it's a ripple effect to those around him."

Burton says a lot of immigrant families see a UC education as a golden ticket.

“Then they get here and a lot of them feel tricked,” she says. "They finally made it. It’s supposed to be the answer to everything. But who do they turn to for food security? Who do they turn to to talk about mental health?

“They are suffering in isolation and depression,” Burton says. “They are skipping meals and couch-surfing. All of these invisible struggles on this campus at such a prestigious and elite university.”

The student we’re profiling here has emerged as a leader in a special class Burton has helped pilot over the last two years. It’s called Road to Resiliency and it gives students on academic probation a place to talk about their struggles and help support each other.

The class, says Burton, helps students "unpack the individual shame that comes with being on academic probation. A lot of times students internalize that D or that F and say, 'This means I'm not cut out for Berkeley. I'm not smart enough. I should just go back and work like the rest of my friends from high school or community college.'"

"It's not that they're not smart enough," Burton says. "It's not that they're not capable, that they don't have the intellectual potential. It's just that they had a whole lot of life happening around them."

The class, and paying off some of his debt by working at the restaurant, helped the college senior in this story get back on track. He’ll officially graduate this December, but he walked with his graduating class this month.

He says giving up on his original blueprint for college — getting a ROTC scholarship, going into the military — was actually the best decision he could have made. He saved a ton of money going to community college and found a career path he never expected.

But here’s the thing. He has kept all of this from his parents.

Despite their daily phone calls, he didn’t confide in them about his financial struggles, his academic probation, the fact that he left Cal for a while.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell her,” he says about his mom. “In my heart, it killed me every single day that I couldn’t.” His parents expected him to succeed. After all, he was the all-star son.

“I can’t face failure,” he admits. “It’s really hard to go back home and say, ‘I couldn’t do it.’ ”

He just wants his parents to see their son that’s graduating from UC Berkeley, the one who’s going to take the LSATs and apply to law school. Not the road it took to get there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In an earlier version of this story, the full name of the student was published. Out of fear of ramifications and impact to his life and family, his name and the photographs have since been removed from the story.

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