Campus & community, People, Profiles

New student Elizabeth Cardenas: I want to give back, helping families in need

"I had a rough childhood growing up — we had Medi-Cal, we had food stamps, we were homeless at times — and now, I want to be on the giving end," said the social welfare major

portrait of elizabeth cardenas smiling with sunflowers behind her

Elizabeth Cardenas is a new UC Berkeley transfer student majoring in social welfare. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“I grew up in Orange County. I have an older sister and younger brother. We were some of the poor kids growing up. All our friends had money, so we would visit their houses, but we’d be too embarrassed to have them visit our house. My mom always made a point to stay in the areas with the good school districts. But the rent was always rising, so we’d have to move, like, every two years.

elizabeth as a young kid with her mom and two siblings

Elizabeth (right) with her mother, Marsy, older sister, Angelica, and younger brother, Robert. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cardenas)

I never really liked school. In Irvine, the school was primarily white and Asian and Persian. We’re Mexican, so we definitely stood out. In middle school, I’d hang out with the other Latinos and campus supervisors would always come over and say, ‘You guys seem threatening to the rest of the campus.’ And we were like, ‘We’re just laughing. We’re not doing anything.’ Meanwhile, other groups of kids aren’t being bothered at all. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but looking back on it now, I realize it was racial profiling.

When I turned 18, during my senior year of high school, my mom kicked me out of the house. I wanted to go to college at the University of Arizona and major in Spanish, but my mom pushed me to go to Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, where my sister went. So, I applied, went through orientation, then right before it was time to enroll in classes, I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this. I don’t even live with her. I don’t know why I’m trying to make her happy.’

elizabeth as a 6-year-old with her schoolmates in their school uniforms

Elizabeth (center), age 6, with classmates at Saint Jeanne de Lestonnac School in Tustin, California. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cardenas)

So, my sister and I moved into an apartment together and I got a job and worked in L.A. When I was 20, I moved in with my boyfriend — who is now my husband — and his family. They had a beautiful family dynamic. They’re really close. Every Sunday, they all go to somebody’s house and hang out and make food. I was like, ‘OK, my family was definitely not like this.’ It was very weird for me to see a healthier family relationship.

When I was 21, I got pregnant and had my son, Sebastian. When he was 3 months old, I decided to go to school at East Los Angeles College. In my first year, I failed everything. I had postpartum depression, but I didn’t realize what it was at the time. I would be taking a walk with my son in his stroller and I’d have to sit on a bench and would just start crying. When I went to visit my mom and sister, I’d just lie on the couch or sit outside with our dogs. When they’d ask if I was OK, I’d just say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

elizabeth and her husband with their son wearing a sombrero

Elizabeth with her husband, Steve, and son, Sebastian. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cardenas)

After about a year, I just kind of looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘You have got to get it together. It’s not good for your son. It’s not good for you. You’re hiding how you’re feeling, forcing a smile to your son. That’s not how you’re supposed to be living.’ It helped me reframe how I was looking at everything.

So, I decided to go back to school and, this time, I really applied myself. I had a 4.0 every semester. I was very lucky because COVID happened, so all classes were online, so I got to do my schoolwork during my own time. And, you know, I did it. I would stay up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m and do it. That was the great thing about living with my in-laws, too, because they were like, ‘We’ll take care of Sebastian. Just do your homework.’

I’m a social welfare major at UC Berkeley. I’m very interested in learning more about the child welfare system and possibly working as a caseworker for child protective services to help shine a light on children who need to feel love or care because they’re going through tough times.

I had a rough childhood growing up — we had Medi-Cal, we had food stamps, we were homeless at times — and now, I want to be on the giving end, rather than the receiving end, helping families in need.”

elizabeth and her husband kiss their son on both cheeks

Elizabeth, Steve and Sebastian, now 3, spend time in the University Village community garden. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)