Graduation for student parents means gowns for Papa, Mama and Baby Bears

Chemical biology major Philip Wright and son Ethan, almost 2, at the Student Parent Center graduation ceremony. (UC Berkeley photos by Hulda Nelson)

Kids love dress-up, but when UC Berkeley graduating student parents robe their children this month in mini versions of their own regalia, they aren’t doing it as a game.

“It’s important that my son wears a cap and gown with me during my graduation because it was our accomplishment, not just mine,” says Julie Silva, whose son Noah, 5, participated in a May 3 Student Parent Center graduation event. Families, often holding hands, walked in a procession together from Alumni House to its outdoor patio for a ceremony honoring 36 student parent graduates.

“My cap and gown signify my achievement as a single mother, as well as a low income and first-generation college student,” adds Silva, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology on May 18, “and it was essential for Noah to feel a sense of pride by wearing a cap and gown like Mommy, to see what dedication looks like, what hard work demands.”

Mia Villaneuva, graduating with a B.A. in English, gets a kiss from son Liam, 3. She also has a 3-week-old baby.

At the campus’s Student Parent Center, director Ginelle Perez says the Baby Bear Gown Lending Project has been in operation since 2012, when she received feedback from student parents that they wanted their youngsters to participate with them in graduation. Through a grant from the non-profit University Section Club, Perez was able to order dozens of child-sized, and even toddler-sized, caps and gowns, and the center loans them to student parents. Further financial backing has come from the campus’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).

A similar program at Berkeley, the Graduation Gown Lending Project, supports first-generation, low-income and historically underrepresented students in the EOP by offering them free graduation gown rentals.

“Having a gown lending program gives us student parents a break from one extra cost,” says Silva. Adds student parent Phil Wright, “Receiving my cap and gown made what was once a dream feel like a reality, and the benefit of not having to pay was like a prize for finishing this long and sometimes difficult race.”

Psychology major Spice Allen and her daughters — Madison, 8, and Allison, 3 — sport matching caps and gowns.

Perez adds that children benefit in many ways from taking part in their parents’ educational journeys and are more likely to value higher education and attain their own college degrees as a result.

Wright, who will be getting his bachelor’s degree in chemical biology on May 15 from the College of Chemistry and hopes to attend medical school, took part in the May 3 celebration with his nearly 2-year-old son, Ethan. Both were decked out in caps and gowns.

“As a first-generation student, I feel it’s important for my son to see that higher education is possible,” says Wright. “In my family, work was what you did after high school. I worked as a paramedic for 11 years, so when a physician in an emergency room… asked me why I never went to school to be something more, I laughed at the notion. He talked me into trying… and needless to say, I’ll be graduating this coming Monday.”

Noah Silva, 5, poses with his mom, Julie, who is graduating with a B.A. in psychology.

“When Ethan’s older, and the time comes for him to start thinking about college,” he adds, “I want to show him these photos so he will know that he can do whatever he sets his mind to. I also want him to take note that I was not alone on this journey. I want him to know that he, like me, will have the love and support of family and friends in seeing his goal to fruition.”

Wright, 33, says he also hopes others in his family will see that education is possible regardless of age or family dynamics. “Everyone in my family knows that it wasn’t easy or always fun,” he says, “but seeing the two of us graduating will reinforce the belief that we can accomplish what we truly put our minds to.”