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Maria Bailey and daughter Vanessa are taking on UC Berkeley together

Laughing, teasing, and interrupting, Vanessa (left) and Maria Bailey act like any two Berkeley students ... but not quite like child and parent. (Bonnie Powell photos)
- Spend ten minutes or so with Maria and Vanessa Bailey, and you quickly realize that they're not just mother and daughter - they're also a fiercely loyal, supportive team of two. They share housing, a car, a laptop, and a longtime dream that finally turned into reality when they both became UC Berkeley students this fall.

Maria emigrated from El Salvador to the United States in 1981, settling in California. In the few short years before Vanessa was born, she hatched the plan that has formed the backbone of both their lives ever since. "As an immigrant, when I first came here, I saw where the chips were falling. For minorities, a good education makes all the difference," she says. "I was going to make sure my kids got that chance."

To Maria, a good K-12 education meant private school, for two reasons. For one, she says, the best public schools were located in neighborhoods where the Baileys could not afford to live. But more importantly, Maria explains - choosing her words carefully - she observed that "in so many public schools the kids are too stratified, too self-segregated. That has a negative impact on minorities, especially the Hispanic community. What I wanted was for Vanessa to grow up with a single consciousness about herself - not that she was different, but that her success would be based on her abilities. I didn't want her to be in an environment where it wasn't cool to try hard, to speak correctly, or where people said you had been 'whitewashed' if you were good at school."

Doing all the right things

So, 17 years ago Maria landed a job as a secretary for a accounting firm in Walnut Creek, with the idea that while her husband's income as an entrepreneur supported the family, her salary would pay for private school for Vanessa and her younger brother, starting with kindergarten. It wasn't easy, but "I wanted to control their environment as much as possible, and give them the opportunities that everyone should have, but doesn't. For that I gave up the idea of a big house, a nice car. And now she understands why," Maria says proudly. To her credit, Vanessa is nodding her agreement instead of rolling her eyes as most teenagers would.

'I knew Berkeley would be perfect for her, and I had told her since she was a little girl that if she worked hard, she could go to Cal.but it wasn't true.'
-Maria Bailey
Vanessa thrived at the small private elementary school she attended until eighth grade, and instead of predictably rebelling against the maternal pressure once she reached high school, she did even better. (Her brother, now 16, is also an academic success, and is debating to which colleges to apply.) "Some people are good at music, some people are good at sports, but I've always been good at school," Vanessa shrugs. "I've just always liked it, even though my mother says I am such a big procrastinator." At Carondelet High School, a Catholic girls' school in Concord, her high grade point average (GPA) earned her a nomination for salutatorian. With her excellent SAT scores, three years on the water polo team, and 800 hours of community service (working as a Carondelet peer counselor and during summers, volunteering with autistic children and Alzheimer's patients), seemed to make her a shoo-in for pretty much any university she looked at. Harvard and Brown and other top Ivy League colleges sent letters practically pleading with her to apply.

But she and her mother only had eyes for one place: UC Berkeley. "I've wanted to go to Cal since I was old enough to know what college was," Vanessa laughs. Although Maria had always eschewed public schools for private, as she says, "Berkeley to me has always been the epitome of an excellent school that also has a diverse environment, both cultural and economic. I knew it would be perfect for her, and I had told her since she was a little girl that if she worked hard, she could go to Cal . but it wasn't true."

A major setback

With great shock the Baileys read Vanessa's rejection letter from UC Berkeley. The only shred of consolation was the university's offer that if Vanessa were to go to community college for two years and maintain a 3.3 GPA, she would be automatically accepted as a junior transfer student. Crushed, Maria tried to persuade Vanessa to apply to one of the private schools that had recruited her earlier. Yet as disappointed as she was, Vanessa still could not let go of her attachment to Berkeley, where she would be part of a diverse student body instead of one of a handful of nonwhite students, as had been the case all her life so far.

She decided to enroll at nearby Diablo Valley College (DVC), where she would at least have company: her mother had been taking night classes at DVC for two years while continuing to work — sometimes full time, sometimes part time depending on the family's finances. "I had always been so adamant with them about how important education is, but I'd put my own dream of it on the back burner until I knew they were on their way and I could relax," Maria explains. "Finally I decided, I'm not that old, I can go back to school now!

Although Maria struggled at first at DVC, her self-discipline and organization skills ultimately triumphed. She took meticulous notes for every article she had to read, and studied every spare minute that she wasn't working. "This woman is a perfectionist," says Vanessa, poking her mother playfully. "At DVC she would tape her classes, so she could listen to them on headphones at the gym and play them in the car until I wanted to gouge my eyes out. She'd even transcribe them!"

Having been well-prepared at her elite high school, Vanessa found DVC much less challenging academically, but eye-opening on a personal level. "I had grown up in a very privileged part of society," she begins, before Maria interrupts with "But you weren't rich or privileged!"

Vanessa glares at her. "Let me finish, OK! Everyone at my high school drove BMWs and had money, and yes, I was a little bit jealous sometimes." She continues, "It was actually a great thing that Berkeley didn't let me in right away, because up to that point I had had everything handed to me and I thought life would always work out that way. DVC gave me a whole new perspective. I realized what a public institution is all about. Everyone can go there. In your class you can sit next to a 60-year-old, a welfare mom, whoever. To me that's part of the whole education experience."

Two for one, and one for all

At the end of Vanessa's two years and Maria's (by that time) four years at DVC, both Baileys had 4.0 GPAs. Vanessa had only needed a 3.3 to be able to transfer, so she knew she would be starting UC Berkeley in fall 2003 as planned.

And encouraged by her perfect GPA, Maria decided to apply to Berkeley herself as a re-entry student. "For me it's always been about access - I want to demonstrate to other minorities that yes it's hard, but you can do it. I just feel that everyone should have the right to a great education, or at least to apply for one," she says. Given Vanessa' first experience, she didn't have much confidence. "I said, well, I'll just see what happens," she recalls.

 maria and Vanessa Bailey
Maria and Vanessa Bailey with the symbol of their longtime shared goal.  

The letter she received from Berkeley was as much a shock as Vanessa's had been, only reversed. Maria had been accepted; she and Vanessa would be starting school as junior transfers at the same time.

There were complications; Maria and her husband were in the middle of a divorce, and money was tight. Both Baileys began madly applying for scholarships, with Maria garnering the lion's share. She wanted to continue working full time, as she had while going to community college, but Vanessa persuaded her to take a leave of absence until January, arguing that Berkeley was going to be much more challenging. Maria's employers, Ernst & Young, agreed to the sabbatical, and even lent her an office laptop that she and Vanessa share for doing school work.

Vanessa herself has kept her part-time job, working as a teacher's aide at her old elementary school, and continues to volunteer four hours a week as a tutor at a group home for foster children in crisis. She claims not to mind living at home with her mother (her brother lives with their father) and commuting to Berkeley from Bay Point together early every morning in their shared car. Since all of her classes finish by noon so she can get to her job, Vanessa drives back in the evening to pick up Maria.

It is not the freedom that most high-achieving high-school students envision when they picture college. "Sure, I wanted to move out and live in Berkeley and do what all my friends are doing, but it just didn't make sense for us to struggle independently," Vanessa says without even a trace of self-pity. "Once I found out we were both going to get to be Berkeley students, it was like, 'OK, how can we make this work.' I never thought, 'Oh bummer, my mom's going to school with me - how will I have fun!' So far, I like going to school with her. My friends recoil when I say that, but it's true. We don't have any classes together, but I wouldn't mind that at all. She takes the best notes!"

Sather Gate opens

Even with the semester firmly in swing, both Baileys appear to still be in their honeymoon phase with their new alma mater. Maria claims not to mind the increase in class sizes from DVC to Berkeley, as she always sits in the front row - where "it's just the professor and me as far as I'm concerned; I don't think about all the people behind me. I just want to get as much as I can from these brilliant people."

Asked about what she hopes to get out of her two (or more) coming years here, she gets misty-eyed even as her smile stretches across her face. "I want to stay here as long as I can. This is a dream for me, learning, becoming, discovering. I want it to be an experience that takes me to the next level as a person," she says. "It's not about grades for me those are just a byproduct of learning. You know, just walking through Doe Library gives me goose bumps. I think, when will I have time to read all these books? I want to go to football games and Cal Performances shows and see the art exhibits!" Having declared her major in sociology, after dabbling with business at DVC, Maria intends to someday study more ways that minorities can succeed.

As for Vanessa, she's majoring in English with an eye toward law school eventually. At the moment, she's both eager and terrified about finally putting her years of preparation to the test. "I turned in my first paper this morning and I was freaking out," she confesses. "Because this is it. This is what I have been training for my whole life. It's like an Olympic event. But I think I have the right tools, thanks to my mom."

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