Graduating senior April Abercrombie (center), a 41-year-old single mother of five, graduates this week with a degree in gender studies. From left, daughters Jasmine, Danny and Madi, all plan to pursue higher education, just like mom and Abercrombie’s two older daughters, Helena and Ashley.
On April Abercrombie’s final day as a UCLA undergraduate, she brought her three youngest daughters to class. Jasmine, 16, Madi, 14, and Danny, 13, have enjoyed sitting in lecture halls on occasion, alongside their mom, learning about everything from French language to African American history.
Abercrombie, a gender studies major, will celebrate her graduation at a June 14 campus ceremony for parenting students. Jasmine, Madi and Danny, along with Abercrombie’s fiancé, Dennis, and his two young sons, will be there alongside her. The ceremony celebrates the achievements and triumphs of parenting students, and allows the children of UCLA graduates to don caps and gowns and walk across the stage with their moms and dads.
“I can finally say that I’ve conquered this dream of earning a degree from a four-year college and not let life conquer me,” said Abercrombie, who endured separation from her children, homelessness, a father who didn’t believe girls deserved an education and many other challenges.
“I am honored that we are graduating with my mom,” Danny said. “We’ve come so far and hustled through all of this to reach the top, and we’re finally here. This is one of the best moments of my life, and one I’ll never forget. I’m so proud to say we made it.”
Forced to drop out
Exposure to college is something that Abercrombie, a 41-year-old mother of five daughters, is proud to have provided because higher education was beyond her reach for many years. Abercrombie had always looked to education as a way out of poverty, but her father and step-mother insisted that she quit school at 16 and get a full-time job.
“My dad always said girls don’t go to college, so I didn’t go because I had to go to work,” said Abercrombie, who grew up in Riverside. “I was the oldest of five and had to help pay the rent. I didn’t have a choice.”
Unable to continue her studies in a traditional setting, she begged her father to let her take the California High School Proficiency Exam, an option that allows students to earn the legal equivalent of a high school diploma. He agreed, and Abercrombie graduated at age 16.
Equally important to Abercrombie was becoming a mom. After her dad kicked her out of the house, she got married and welcomed her first child, Helena, at 19. Ashley was born two years later.
Abercrombie started working as a make-up artist in the film industry. Although things were looking up, major challenges followed — including family violence, two divorces, losing contact with Helena and Ashley, after her ex-husband moved away with them, and bouts of unemployment and homelessness, all in the midst of her responsibilities as a full-time parent to the three younger girls.
Abercrombie said a reunion with Helena and Ashley came just four years ago after the girls contacted her on Facebook.
“It’s been a journey,” she said. “Quite a journey.”
Beating the odds
Abercrombie, Jasmine, Madi, and Danny moved to Los Angeles in 2006 after living in Alabama and Las Vegas. A neighbor was a single mother of two who was a student at Los Angeles Harbor College.
“I remember just watching her every day, going to work, going to college, and I was so jealous.”
Abercrombie decided that if this woman could do it, so could she. And she did.
Abercrombie enrolled at Harbor College in 2008, to study humanities. She became a student senator, served as vice-president of the student council and graduated in 2011. She has since been invited back to campus several times to speak to students, including most recently at the college’s graduation.
Since coming to UCLA in Fall 2013, Abercrombie and her girls have moved into family housing —which she said has provided her children with a safer neighborhood, better schools and access to a variety of extra-curricular activities — and thrown themselves into campus life.
Abercrombie has helped guide parenting students through her work at the Bruin Resource Center, and she, Jasmine, Madi and Danny frequently volunteer at BRC events, including Bruin Transfer Day.
Samantha Hogan, a student affairs officer for the gender studies department, said she has been impressed with Abercrombie’s resilience and ability to remain positive during difficult times that would break many other people.
“She wants each of her daughters to find what they love and then pursue that,” Hogan said. “To watch her navigate everything that she has is remarkable. I’m sad to see her go, but I’m proud of her accomplishments and excited to see that she’s moving on to bigger and better things.”
“There were times I was washing the girls’ clothes in the bathtub and only had $5 to last the week. I would walk to school sometimes because I couldn’t afford the bus money,” said Abercrombie, who recently accepted a full-time management position at Nordstrom — which required a four-year degree to get. “To me, it was worth it.”
They’re all going to college
Since returning to school nearly seven years ago, Abercrombie has worked to create a college-going culture among her girls.
“It’s been a really great thing for the girls because we do homework together and we compete. I’ll say ‘I got an A, beat that.’”
And it seems to be working.
“I plan to go to college not only because my whole life I’ve been encouraged to go, but because of my inspiration,” said Madi, who wants to become a teacher or a writer. “My mom was able to change her whole life by applying to college, and I want to show her that I can be amazing and brave like she has been.”
Oldest daughter Helena, 21, is currently a student at Cal Poly Pomona and daughter Ashley, 19, is enrolled at a community college in San Diego. Danny wants to study race and gender, and Jasmine plans to study business, economics and political science.
“My mom has taught me that education is sacrifice and balance,” Jasmine said. “She has told me that education is the key to power and true independence, as well as freedom. Thank you, Mom. I love you more than a million red Skittles.”