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Berkeley’s College Signing Day a celebration of family firsts

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Stefanie Castenada (left) and Mitzy Rubio

Stefanie Casteneda (left) and Berkeley High School classmate Mitzy Rubio have their stars shining bright at Berkeley’s College Signing Day. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

In some ways, UC Berkeley’s College Signing Day on Wednesday was like any other meet-and-greet— moving around a room you’ve never been in, talking to people you don’t know and may never see again.

But that’s if you didn’t count the photo booth. Or being serenaded by the Cal Band. Or chomping away at the burrito bar. Or hamming it up with Oski. Or placing your name and higher institution of choice on a window of the California Athletics Hall of Fame. There was even financial assistance for the asking.

And did we mention a drop-in video visit from former First Lady Michelle Obama, preceded by a welcome-to-Berkeley talk from Chancellor Carol Christ?

Routine? Not even a little.

And the event’s highlight was when the majority of the nearly 500 college students-to-be who had gathered in California Memorial Stadium’s Field Club wrote their names and chosen colleges on gold stars and affixed them to a glass panel. The act signaled their intent to attend a variety of colleges and universities, including Berkeley.

Lesly Simmons

Incoming UC Berkeley freshman Lesly Simmons points to her star at Berkeley’s College Signing Day. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

For many, they will be the first in their families to attend college. For all of them, financial aid is essential. This was a day to celebrate the former and to map out plans to address the latter.

“This is a huge day for me and my family,” Lesly Simmons said. The senior at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small public high school in Oakland, was putting up her gold star with her name and the word “CAL” in four-inch block letters. “This is my dream, but it’s also the dream of my parents.

“I’ve never even been on the campus before. This is such a special day.”

Simmons plans on pursuing computer science at Berkeley, saying “I’m a techie. I like to code.”

While Simmons will attend Berkeley, most of the rest of the 500 will follow separate, if somewhat parallel, paths. Berkeley High School friends and classmates Mitzy Rubio and Stefanie Casteneda took selfies after putting up their stars adjacent to one another. Rubio will be coming to Berkeley in the fall, while Casteneda is off to University of the Redlands.

It turns out Wednesday morning was a life-affirming morning in the Rubio household.

“As big as the day is for me, I think it’s bigger for my parents,” Rubio said. Her parents never made it to college. “My mom (Esmeralda) was crying. It was emotional.”

Ruben Canedo

Ruben Canedo, chair of UC Berkeley’s basic needs committee, emceed Wednesday’s Berkeley College Signing Day. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee).

Casteneda said her father had to drop out of school to work after the second grade, and while her mother did finish high school, her formal education ended there.

“I’m another one of the first-generation (students) to go to college,” Casteneda says. “The thought of it is so exciting.”

Not every one of the high school seniors will be off to a four-year school. For Aliea Torres of Emery High School in Emeryville, the choices have been narrowed to Berkeley City College or Sacramento City College. She’d visited UC Berkeley twice before Wednesday and previously had felt that, for her, being a student here was impossible.

“I had good grades, but I never thought I could make it at Berkeley,” Torres said. “It always seemed out of reach. But after two years, who knows? I might be back here.”

She wouldn’t be alone. As Oscar Dubón, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, emphasized, one-third of the students coming to Berkeley now do so as transfers from the community college system. Berkeley’s transfer system prioritizes California community college students over students from elsewhere in the UC and from the California State University system.

After the stars were aligned, the day’s emcee, Ruben Canedo, chair of UC Berkeley’s basic needs committee, welcomed the students, gave a general outline of campus services available to them and spoke of the importance of making the most of college, not only for themselves, but for their families.

Ian Roberts

Ian Roberts of Aspire Public Schools drew on his background as an Olympic runner to talk with attendees at Berkeley’s College Signing Day on Wednesday. (UC Berkeley photo by Megan Lee)

Canedo also brought a series of dignitaries to the podium including Ian Roberts, who made his first splash as a middle-distance runner competing for Guyana in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. He is now the chief schools officer for Aspire Public Schools, which has 40 community-based K-12 schools in California and Tennessee serving over 16,000 students.

Roberts used his Olympic experience as a counterpoint to the fact that the four-year colleges to which he’d applied turned him down. He wound up at Coppin State University before earning a pair of master’s degrees from St. John’s University and Georgetown University, respectively, and a Ph.D. in urban educational leadership from Morgan State University.

“What I learned is that I was never going to give my pen to someone else to write my story,” Roberts told the suitably enrapt crowd, composed of students from 10 East Bay high schools and the Berkeley Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP) programs. “You go write your own story.”

The chancellor stressed how the world will open for the students once they enter college.

“For those of us who work in higher education, this is one of the great days of the year,” Christ said. “We feel the connection to the hopes and the dreams of you.

“I see incredible diversity here, and I think there is even more diversity of thought and opinion. I hope that you bring that with you and that you respect that in others. You will change higher education by being a part of it.”

Obama’s simulcast from College Signing Day at UCLA energized the room. As Serrano said, “She’s been such a role model for me.”

In her remarks, Obama said the day wasn’t about her. It was about the high school seniors nationwide who have chosen to head to college, suggesting that they are ready for big things. Among them is her daughter, Sasha, who reportedly will be a freshman at the University of Michigan this fall. “So, I know what you’ve been going through getting to this point,” Obama said.

“I’m stepping out of the way for you to lead; I love you guys,” Obama said. “We put this day together so you would know how many people have your back. Stumbling happens to all of us. What’s important is getting back up.

“It’s not the failure that matters, but the ability to bounce back that makes you a true champion.”

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