Achieving the Dream: A newly minted UC Berkeley grad juggled motherhood and academics to earn her bachelor's degree

May 13, 2024

As a working mom who is raising two boys, Alma Rodriguez commuted three hours a day to attend the world's best public institution. 

She's also a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, who worked extremely hard to earn a spot at UC Berkeley, where she graduated this week with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She’s off to Stanford University in the fall on a full scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education.

Nothing has ever come easy for Alma. Her grit and determination to succeed against all odds has enabled her to achieve her dreams.

She spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about her arduous journey and her desire to ultimately give back to her community, so that others will have the same opportunities she had to succeed. The interview is edited for clarity. 

Tell us more about your background and how you got to UC Berkeley
Alma Rodriguez: I am a first-generation Latina college student, a mother of two and a DACA recipient. I was born in Mexico, and migrated to the United States when I was 12 years old. I always had a deep passion for learning, but after graduating high school, I had to defer my dream of going into college in order to financially support my family. 

The lack of resources for undocumented individuals positioned us at the edge of homelessness. With no financial support, I had no choice but to drop out of college twice. My educational journey has not been easy. I had to overcome many challenges, but DACA provided me with a new opportunity to achieve my educational goals. 

After having both of my kids, I decided to enroll back in my local community college. In the Fall of 2021, I transferred from Solano Community College to UC Berkeley to complete my Bachelor’s degree in sociology. The intersectionality of my identities and my lived experiences has enabled me to represent the various communities from which I belong to. Despite the adversities that I have to overcome during my time as an undergrad, such as the loss of my grandfather, the lack of sufficient funding for undocumented students and childcare expenses — I have mustered the strength to keep working on my educational goals regardless of the many responsibilities that I hold as a mother and as the backbone of my family. Coming to Berkeley has been the most rewarding and self-fulfilling experience. 

What are the challenges of being a DACA student?
Alma Rodriguez: Undocumented students are faced with innumerable challenges that make higher education difficult to attain. As a DACA recipient, navigating the higher education system has been extremely difficult. The limited funding that is available to us undocumented students and the challenges that come with also being a first-generation student has negative impacts on our educational experience. 

In my personal experience, one of the most difficult challenges has been commuting. The limited funding allocated for undocumented students did not allow me to live at the University Village in Albany, where most student parents reside. Throughout my undergraduate journey at Berkeley, I had to commute for a total of three hours a day that I could have utilized in getting more involved in the campus community or spending more time with my children. Navigating the uncertainty of my immigration status, while navigating the challenges of being a student-parent, definitely made my educational journey difficult. I hope that institutions learn from our experiences and fight towards allocating more resources and funding for undocumented students and other underrepresented students here at UC Berkeley. 

Why did you decide to major in Sociology?
Alma Rodriguez: Growing up undocumented, I often felt lost and isolated. I was not given the appropriate tools to succeed academically. I was placed under an educational system that severely overlooked my capabilities. I often found myself trying to understand the systems of oppression that had positioned me in those particular situations and sociology allowed me to understand those systems of oppression that have historically marginalized my community. By understanding the root of the problems, we are arming ourselves with the appropriate tools to mitigate those challenges and work towards creating positive revolutionary change. Sociology for me has been liberating. It has formed my critical thinking and has allowed me to further explore my potential and ways in which I can contribute to a better society. 

What did you like best about your UC Berkeley experience, both academically and socially?
Alma Rodriguez: UC Berkeley has given me more than I could have ever imagined. Academically, I had the opportunity to be challenged by all the amazing classes that I took in the Sociology Department. I enjoyed all of my lectures, and I attended office hours where I was able to create a connection with faculty. I was able to explore all aspects of academia. I was given the opportunity to do my own research through the sociology honors thesis program and Firebaugh research program. I learned so much about myself, and I became a stronger advocate for my communities.

Socially, I was able to create long-lasting relationships with various affinity and organization groups on campus, like the student-parent center, and the undocumented student program. Through the community that I found on campus, I learned to embrace my identities as a student, who is also a mother and a DACA recipient. I enjoyed walking on campus on sunny days and taking both of my kids to Cal on weekend walks. I will truly miss my time at Berkeley because it was the most self-rewarding experience that I was ever given. 

What does graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology mean to you?
Alma Rodriguez: Graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology means that I will possess a powerful tool that will allow me to achieve all of my educational dreams. This degree will open amazing opportunities in my academic journey. Being taught by the best faculty in the best Sociology Department in the world (Ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report), is something that most people can only dream of and I was able to achieve. I recognize the privilege that this entails; therefore, I have a big responsibility to contribute to create a better society. I will make sure that my actions always align to the high level of respect that the Sociology Department and UC Berkeley deserves. 

You're off to Stanford in the fall for your Ph.D. What do you ultimately want to do as a career?
Alma Rodriguez: I was also nominated by the Graduate School of Education at Stanford to receive the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) Fellowship based on my record of extraordinary academic accomplishment and potential to contribute to the diversity of perspectives in my program and academic field. Having been accepted into the Sociology of Education Ph.D. program at Stanford has given me the amazing opportunity to continue my goal of becoming a professor and an agent of change within the communities that my identities represent. I envisioned teaching about my communities through the sociological lens and creating positive change in the field of education by developing systems of support, such as mentorship programs that will provide underrepresented students the opportunity to be mentored throughout their higher education journey. 

UC Berkeley Sociology Graduate Alma Rodiguez (middle) with her son Milan 9 (left) and Maxi 7 (right)