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Student Parent Center and Summer Bridge team up to help student parents

By Andrea Hicklin

Later this month, Angelica Albarran will be one of 5,200 nervous and excited freshmen starting their first fall semester at UC Berkeley. And Albarran, an 18-year-old from Orange County, will arrive with an additional challenge — as the single parent of a two-month-old baby.

But Summer Bridge, a UC Berkeley summer program that ends today, has helped Albarran and some 200 other incoming freshmen from lower socioeconomic backgrounds get a head start on college life.

The mission of the six week Summer Bridge program, which began in 1973, is to assist students in making a successful academic, social and personal transition to college life. The residential program requires students to enroll in two to three academic courses and attend one seminar. The program also provides students with workshops, tutoring and a personal advisor. The program educates freshmen about all the resources they can utilize while attending UC Berkeley.

Student parents in the program like Albarran were also introduced to a supportive community in the campus’s Transfer, Re-Entry, and Student Parent Center, where they realized that their goal of a college education as a parent is achievable. The center serves about 350 student parents on a continuous basis. Those parents, including transfer students and veterans, will be joined by 100 new student parents this school year.

The three freshmen student parents participating in this year’s Summer Bridge program, one from the Bay Area and two from Southern California, have children ranging in age from six weeks old to five years old. Each of their situations is unique, but through Summer Bridge and services provided by the Student Parent Center, they are learning to build a support group for each other.

Ginelle Perez, one of the administrators of the Student Parent Center and a former student parent at UC Berkeley, works closely with Summer Bridge to identify incoming student parents and provide them with the necessary resources to ensure they become successful freshmen. She said they often struggle with questions about whether or not they belong at UC Berkeley and if they are UC Berkeley material.

“Their admission to UC Berkeley is based on them…successfully completing the six week program. They are already stressed about that,” says Perez, who along with the center’s other administrators work during the summer to help young student parents build confidence in themselves.

The incoming freshmen parents – of which there are only a handful each academic year – also need to obtain financial aid, apply for family housing, and arrange childcare for the upcoming school year. The Student Parent Center assists them with every step during the summer to help them be better prepared for fall semester.

One of the main goals of the Student Parent Center is to create a safe, welcoming environment for student parents. The center, in the campus’s Cesar Chavez Student Center, has space for parents to work on homework or to bring their children to play. Throughout the day, students come in and out, with or without their children, to ask a question, get advice, eat their lunch, or just talk with Perez or a fellow student parent.

Elizabeth Rodriguez came to the UC Berkeley Summer Bridge program as a student parent with her three-year-old son in 2005, but she had no idea there were services available to help.

“I didn’t know anything. I thought I was an anomaly or something,” said Rodriguez. The center sorted everything out for her, though, and she graduated this past May with her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.

The road to graduation wasn’t easy. There were times, Rodriguez said, when she could hardly handle the stress of school and being a parent. A Los Angeles native, Rodriguez also was often homesick and dealt with the added pressure of a homesick son. She was motivated to continue by the other student parents at the center who became role models and friends.

Seeing other student parents from previous years graduate from UC Berkeley and go on to graduate school helped Rodriguez realize she could accomplish the same things. Rodriguez also expanded herself socially while at UC Berkeley, becoming more open to sharing her story with other student parents and helping them out.

Rodriguez hopes to apply to law school after taking some time off to spend with her family. “It’s in me. It’s what I do. I can’t go more than a month without mentally stimulating myself because I get frustrated, I get bored,” she said of continuing her education.

Albarran came to the center every day during the Summer Bridge program. The administrators and other student parents in the center also took care of her two-month-old daughter, Kaylie, while she was in class. The childcare was provided on a volunteer basis at no cost as a favor to Albarran.

Initially, Albarran did not have her daughter with her when she came to Summer Bridge because she said she was unaware she was allowed to bring Kaylie along. Perez tracked Albarran down during the program and told her she could bring her daughter to campus. Albarran jumped the next Amtrak train to Southern California to pick up Kaylie, but still wondered whether she would be able to handle having her daughter with her while she was at school in the fall.

“The girls (in the Student Parent Center) have helped me a lot,” said Albarran. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Student parents already at UC Berkeley are always eager to help incoming freshmen, like Albarran, said Rodriguez. “I see new parents and recognize what they are going through as what I went through,” she said. “And I want to help them.” Everyone is willing to put themselves out there to help in any way they can. Older student parents donate their used cribs and strollers, too, in order to help freshmen parents with the cost of their children.

Another way the Student Parent Center provides support year-round is through a two-unit academic transitional support class. Incoming student parents, all of them women, meet once a week to share their ups and downs and highs and lows. “A lot of the same issues and struggles come up,” said Perez. “The girls realize they’re not alone, so it really builds a sense of community.”

Each student parent who utilizes the services provided by the Student Parent Center gets armed with tools to be successful in college and life. “This institution is a great leader- producer. It really empowers people to just go on and do what they’re passionate about,” said Perez, who is herself a success story of that program.

Perez entered the Summer Bridge program in 2004 when her daughter was three years old. She is heading up the Student Parent Center this summer before attending the University of Southern California in the fall to complete her master’s degree in post-secondary education. A self-declared advocate for higher education and the elimination of poverty, Perez hopes to continue to support the Student Parent Center at UC Berkeley and duplicate it across the country.

“The most rewarding piece,” she said, “is being able to provide the services and eventually see these students, who come in shaken up, by the end of the process very empowered.”