The University of California at Berkeley—known by students and locals simply as “Cal”—looms large as a symbol of educational excellence, recently ranked the top public university and the fourth-best overall in the U.S. News & World Report’s global rankings. Cal also holds the distinction of having the highest number of students from Making Waves Foundation’s college success program CAP, with 92 currently enrolled, all of whom are students of color, first-generation, and/or from low-income households.
So what is it like for CAP’s Wave-Makers to attend Cal? We spoke to four current CAP students to find out. All four are children of immigrants, and all grew up in East Bay neighborhoods where Cal’s Sather Tower literally looms in the distance. For these students, navigating life at Cal is about finding support and inspiration where they can—from their families and communities, from each other, from their CAP coaches, and ultimately, from the strength that they have found within themselves.
Four Paths to Berkeley
Hilda F. (pictured above in her first year) is now a senior at Cal, majoring in Legal Studies and Sociology. Her family came to the Bay Area from El Savador and settled in Richmond, where Hilda attended Making Waves Academy, planting the seed for what would follow. She says, “I had my heart set on Berkeley since the idea of college was introduced to me in eighth grade.”
For Hilda, the biggest challenge at Cal has been learning to manage the course load, but the biggest change was leaving her majority-Latinx community and navigating a campus where most people do not look like her. She now reflects, “I think being so sheltered in my home community helped me build my own identity,” which she says was important to her success at Cal.
Marwat A.-O., now a Cal senior majoring in Public Health and Conservation & Resource Studies, came to the United States from Yemen as a child and grew up in East Oakland. Her introduction to Cal came when she became active in community organizing during her freshman year of high school and met Cal students and professors who were involved in the same work to support communities like hers.
Marwat remembers that when she first came to Cal, she didn’t feel academically prepared and felt like she was constantly trying to catch up. “I had this negative mindset like, ‘Maybe they just chose me because they were trying to diversify their institution,’” she says. “But then I realized that coming from a community that didn’t have much and being resilient with all the circumstances that I faced, I actually did more than a lot of students to get here. I felt like I was put in a situation and was able to conquer it and get through it.”
Citlalli H., a senior studying Landscape Architecture with a minor in Urban Planning, came to Cal from East Oakland, where her parents had moved from Mexico decades before. In high school, she loved riding BART to discover different cities and neighborhoods, and at first, Berkeley felt too close to home. “But I decided to attend Cal because I knew it kept me close to things I loved most,” she says now. As for the workload, Citlali says, “Cal pushes people, and every year I enjoy reflecting on how much I’ve grown.”
Danielle P., whose parents came to Alameda from the Philippines, began her first year at Cal during COVID-19 in Fall 2020. Instead of learning how to navigate a physical campus, she has only experienced Cal remotely, attending virtual classes and club meetings from her childhood bedroom.
“So far, the experience has been welcoming but really hard on a social level,” Danielle says. “I feel like all the professors have been really understanding, with all of the classes on Zoom, and the students in the clubs I’ve joined so far have been really nice to me. But it’s still so hard to make friends.”
The Club: Wave-Makers of Berkeley
One of the clubs that Danielle joined this year is Wave-Makers of Berkeley (WMB), which was founded in 2018 by senior Yuyang Z. with support from CAP College Coaches Richard Rose and Felicia Tripp. The only formalized, campus-recognized club for Wave-Makers at any university, WMB’s goal is to help connect and provide peer support to CAP students at Cal.
The club’s support is especially important given that, according to 2020 enrollment data, Cal’s undergraduate population includes just 22% underrepresented minority students, 29% first-generation students, and 26% students from low-income households that receive Pell grants. Marwat, WMB’s current president, explains that for her, “Being surrounded by people who came from similar communities and who care about those communities helps me remember why I’m here, where I came from, and why I came to this institution in the first place. And it also helps me realize that we’re all struggling, and we’re here to help each other. No one is doing this alone.”
WMB’s events—including game nights and study sessions—have moved online this year, but still provide a sense of community, as Marwat says, “Even just hopping on Zoom to play a game, I can be surrounded by people like those I grew up with. It feels like I’m home.” Citlali fondly remembers in-person gatherings that she helped plan last year, like a painting night and a movie night that was particularly memorable “because we weren’t able to play the movie! We didn’t have the right adapter, so we just sat together and ate snacks. Even though something went wrong with the planning, it was really fun.”
WMB also runs a mentorship program that pairs first-year Wave-Makers with upper-level students, which has been a big plus for Danielle: “Being a freshman and not knowing about the nuances on this campus, I find it really helpful. Because of [my mentor] Citlali, I now know about a lot of the things that no one tells you, like how to use citation and note-taking software.” Citlali says, “I just really wanted to help. But I also just don’t mind being the type of person that you can just tell anything. And especially now, during COVID, I kind of need someone to just talk to as well!” Marwat also enjoys mentoring through WMB, as she explains, “Just to see that someone’s actually taking advantage of the opportunities or actually hearing my advice—it feels so good, because I can see them grow.”
Finding support and giving back
All of the Wave-Makers we spoke with credit their families as important sources of emotional support during their time at Cal. Even so, there can be limits to the kind of support that families can give, and CAP often bridges that gap, providing one-on-one college coaching and financial literacy training.
As Marwat explains, “I’m grateful to have a mother who supports me getting an education and making the most out of my college experience, but I couldn’t talk to her about my worries and stress because I didn’t want her to worry that I wasn’t doing well. My CAP coach Mr. Rose is the first person I could talk to about it—he always says, ‘Just tell me. Just be real, and we can figure it out together.’” Hilda adds, “My family is wonderful in encouraging me and keeping me afloat, but I am the first college student in my household. When I need help finding resources or just figuring out if I’m doing this college thing right, it has been great to be able to call Mr. Rose. The financial coordinators are also so helpful, especially when I had no idea how to navigate financial aid as a freshman.” For Citlali, support from her CAP coach became especially important during remote learning, since she couldn’t access in-person resources on campus. “If it wasn’t for the scheduled phone calls with Mr. Rose,” she says, “I wouldn’t be talking to anyone about anything.”
All four of these students are also following a long tradition of Wave-Makers who “recycle their success” back into their communities. Danielle says she has a passion for helping and teaching people and plans to be a mentor with WMB in the future. Both Marwat and Citlali have extended their mentorship activities to support high school students from underserved communities to enter their fields of study, where women and people of color are underrepresented. Marwat works with a Berkeley student program called Helix, which provides mentors and programming for high school students interested in healthcare fields, and Citlali is partnering with another CAP student to start a similar project that will introduce high school students to landscape architecture. Hilda volunteers with a nonprofit organization that defends immigrant rights, helping hundreds of people to gain access to asylum and eventually to a path to citizenship, as she says, “I’m very proud to be able to see the impact my work has on my community.”
As they look toward graduation, the three seniors all plan to continue to do work that will benefit their communities. Hilda’s goal is to practice law in defense of immigrant rights. Citlali hopes to ultimately return to her neighborhood to “design spaces that are healthier, cleaner, more sustainable, and more culturally appropriate, de-escalating the gentrifying effect that a lot of new buildings have in my community.” Marwat plans to pursue a career in UX research in order “to design products for people who look like my community.”
For now, with years at Cal ahead of her, Danielle is focusing on her classes and being part of the Cal Band, which this year has meant contributing videos to the band’s virtual performances instead of taking the field at football games. She is considering majoring in political science and pursuing law, along with a French major. In an interview together, Citlali quickly switches into mentor mode when Danielle says she is unsure about her future because she hasn’t yet been able to take any political science classes. “I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting taking ethnic studies classes instead of political science,” Citlali offers. “And there’s a summer minor in Race and the Law that you could consider, too.” With support from a community of Wave-Makers at Cal, Danielle can know that, whatever she decides, she is not alone.