Berkeley’s College Signing Day a Celebration of Family Firsts

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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?

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.

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 Serrano 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.”

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

While Serrano 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.”

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.

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