Daniela Medina still cherishes a 2019 graduation video that captures her walking across UC Berkeley’s Haviland Hall stage, receiving a bachelor’s degree in social welfare. The 26-second clip has taken on new meaning for Medina because of the person behind the camera: Sylvia Bracamonte — her friend, mentor and fellow Berkeley alumna.
“You can hear her cheering for me in the background and yelling, ‘That’s my girl! … Let’s go, Daniela! We love you, Daniela!’” recalls Medina, who graduated from Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare program on Monday. “In that moment, she said she passed the (MSW) torch to me. And she really did. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have a master’s degree right now.”
Bracamonte, a social worker, was killed last year in a Santa Rosa group home by a client she was trying to help, and on a day she was not scheduled to work. That commitment to public service is something Medina hopes, as a graduate, to emulate: Her own way of preserving her friend’s legacy.
“I feel like anything I accomplish from now on is because of Sylvia,” Medina said.
“My dreams are her dreams.”
As a formerly incarcerated student-parent and first-generation scholar, Medina transferred to Berkeley in fall 2017. She would find a community with Berkeley’s Underground Scholars program, a campus initiative that supports students transitioning from prison to college, that gave her support as a nontraditional student.
But a year later, and on the verge of completing her bachelor’s degree, Medina said she still suffered from “imposter syndrome.” With her sites on graduate school, she doubted whether or not she should pursue a higher degree.
That attitude changed when Medina met Bracamonte at a graduate school information session.
“Sylvia stood up in front of everyone to share personal things about her life: the good and the bad. … She was so confident, it was like she shook the whole room,” said Medina. “She wasn’t afraid to talk about being a student-parent, dropping out of high school, or being homeless and going through substance abuse at a young age. … She was proud to come from a nontraditional background. That made me feel like I also belonged.”
Bracamonte was a graduate student in Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare program at the time, and from that day forward, she would be Medina’s mentor — a kindred spirit with similar lived experiences.
The two would bond as Latinx students and mothers, and they often talked about books they’d read and their mutual “die-hard” fandom of the Oakland Raiders. They also shared a passion for social justice, and as members of Underground Scholars, they would advocate at the state capitol for policies that benefit formerly incarcerated and nontraditional college students.
Medina said Bracamonte, a mother of two, had an undying love for her community and family and was always there to “keep it real,” giving her advice about scholarships, her career and future plans. She also normalized being a student-parent at Berkeley, often bringing her children to office hours and other campus events.
“The way that Sylvia carried out her work and lived her life, she was an inspiration and a mentor to a lot of people,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, director of Underground Scholars. “I don’t know if she really knew how much she blazed the trail for other people, but that’s definitely something that we saw in her. She expected the best from people and never set limitations on herself or those around her.”
A fierce advocate
A social worker and McNair scholar, Bracamonte was known by faculty members as “a fierce advocate” for her Latinx community in Santa Rosa. After earning her master’s degree in 2019, she moved back to her hometown to serve as a case manager at a group home where, on March 20, 2020, she was murdered by a teenaged client.
Bracamonte was mourned by the campus community she was deeply involved in. Her Berkeley professors remember her as being full of “light, life and love” and “a kind and reflective learner, a loving mother and a generous friend to her classmates.”
“(She was) a phenomenal scholar of life, of truth and of justice,” social welfare faculty member Eveline Chang said in a statement. “Bracamonte was an organizer and bridge-builder who has truly embodied love at the core of everything she fought for across all communities.”
In the months following Bracamonte’s death, Medina said she felt a responsibility to honor her friend. She partnered with Underground Scholars, Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly and the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence to start the Sylvia Bracamonte Memorial Scholarship.
The scholarship aims to provide two recipients with $1,500 a year. The memorial is funded with $60,000 for 10 years and will support women of color who are graduate students and are committed to community-engaged scholarship. Kerby Lynch, external affairs vice president for Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly, helped create the scholarship as a response and immediately worked with the Bracamonte family to advocate for seed funds from the Graduate Assembly.
Lynch hopes other campus partners come forward to help contribute to the scholarship.
“Sylvia, in her life, and what she represented at Berkeley, was institutional resilience,” Lynch said. “As a survivor of the war on drugs, Sylvia’s commitment to healing the community from the harms of the prison industrial complex is why we need to elevate the experiences of marginalized students on campus and support their academic growth.”
Making her life matter
On April 30, Bracamonte’s birthday, her family selected the first two scholarship recipients. Bracamonte’s mother, Stormie Jimenez, said that, beyond her daughter’s community and academic accolades, she was always “the life of the party” and lit up every room she walked into.
The day before Bracamonte died, Jimenez said, she went to the beach with her children —“together, as a family.”
“There are so many beautiful things to say about Sylvia, but the best thing she was — was a mother,” said Jimenez. “I don’t know where she got the energy from, but she took her kids hiking, swimming and on trips everywhere. She always found a way to spend special time with them, and she’s very much missed by her children.”
Frankie Free Ramos, a former high school teacher and college counselor pursuing a Ph.D. in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, is one of the first Bracamonte scholarship recipients. Ramos said that although she didn’t personally know Bracamonte, she is inspired and committed to always spreading her story and keeping her memory alive.
“Her research really attempted to lift up the truth: that when people in dire situations get the support that they need, the opportunities, the mentorship, the financial aid, that they can overcome so many things,” said Ramos. “I think she’s an example of that, and a constant reminder that people will thrive, if given the opportunity.”
For Medina, Bracamonte’s death is still very raw. When talking about her friend, she often has to fight back tears and is still very confused about why she died. It has also made her question the work they both love: helping others.
“When someone works so hard and ends up dying like that. It makes you wonder, ‘Does this all even matter?’” said Medina. “I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I know that I have to try my best to make Sylvia’s life and work matter. We all do.”
Despite the heartache, Medina said she hopes to advocate for better policies in the nonprofit sector that can help protect social workers like Bracamonte — to keep them safe. Medina is also serving as a mentor, like Bracamonte, to undergraduates at Berkeley.
It is another way for Medina to pass on the advice and guidance she was given.
“Sometimes, when Daniela shares something about Sylvia, it just really inspires me,” said Natalie Verducci, Medina’s undergraduate mentee. “I recently lost one of my best friends, also, so, I feel like I connect with Daniela in that way, too. We’re really trying to keep their legacies alive. And by doing so, it motivates us in our own work to keep going.”