Students + Campus

Graduation a family affair for UCLA student parents and their children

Following a campus tradition, student parents and their families celebrate at a special ceremony and after-party, complete with face-painting

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Douglas Sierra and his children

UCLA student Douglas Sierra and his kids, Benjamin and Natalie.

UCLA student Douglas Sierra has juggled studying for finals and making it to class on time with a multitude of heavy responsibilities that also come with being a parent.

Sierra, for example, had to shuttle back and forth between the UCLA campus and Reagan UCLA Medical Center when he had a research project to complete for a competition at the same time his wife, Nancy, was in labor. And he’s had to take his older son to lectures when child care wasn't available.

So when Sierra takes part Sunday in the fifth annual Parenting Students at UCLA Graduation Ceremony — on Father’s Day — his children, 6-month-old Natalie and 6-year-old Benjamin, will don caps and gowns to accompany him on stage.

"Graduation wouldn’t be the same without them," said Sierra, a math and economics major. "Part of the reason we go to college is for them. We’re trying to improve our lives so they can have a better future."

In partnership with the student organization Parenting Students at UCLA, the Bruin Resource Center at UCLA started the ceremony five years ago to celebrate the hard-won triumphs of student parents and their families. Both parents and children receive certificates, and, after the ceremony, there’s a kid-friendly reception with face-painting and balloon animals.

► More Commencement 2014 stories and photos.

This year, 28 undergraduate and graduate students will walk with their families.

"Before this ceremony, there wasn’t really a graduation where families could be totally involved," said Melissa Sinclair, coordinator of the Students with Dependents program at the Bruin Resource Center. "This is truly a ceremony where small children, teenagers and even adult family members can participate in the celebration with their graduating parents."

UCLA has about 300 undergraduates who report having dependents on their application for federal student aid. (The number of graduate students with dependents is harder to determine because not all graduate students fill out this form.)

Because students who are parents have unique needs, Sinclair and other staff members at the resource center meet with them regularly to help them with financial aid concerns, housing, child care and other issues. Students can find help there if they need to apply for the CalFresh food aid program, Medi-Cal or CalWorks financial assistance program.

The center also features a lounge where Sierra and other students can come together during the day to study, use a computer or just to meet and share tips on how to navigate studies, part-time jobs and a hectic home life.

"I remember there was one night during finals week when I didn’t sleep," Sierra said. He had to rush their son to the emergency room when Benjamin contracted pneumonia. When Sierra finally returned home, he had to then study for an 8 a.m. final.

But Sierra said the struggles he’s been through will help his children realize that going to college is important.

"I didn’t prioritize high school as much as I wanted to," said Sierra, who attended Los Angeles Valley and Los Angeles Mission community colleges and improved his grades before applying to UCLA. "But when they see me graduate, I will be setting an example for them, and they will know that they can do it too."

Iliana Garcia and her children don caps and gowns for the ceremony.

Iliana Garcia, an applied linguistics major, who will also graduate this Sunday, said what’s kept her moving forward is the support she’s received from other students as well as the Bruin Resource Center and the Academic Advancement Program. A transfer student from Rio Hondo College, she’s the mother of Miguel, 15, and Aurora, 11.

Her first quarter at UCLA was especially difficult because she didn’t realize she could enroll her son in a magnet middle school, she said. Instead, her son ended up attending a larger public school.

"What we’re trying to do with the Students with Dependents program is to create some sense of connection when parenting students are admitted to UCLA," said Garcia, 38, who works part-time at the resource center and, with Sierra, co-chairs Parenting Students at UCLA. "They should know way ahead of time that they have choices — because once you come in, it’s just go, go, go," she added.

Garcia, a single mother, said finances have also been difficult for the family because the financial aid she receives simply isn’t enough.

She doesn’t drive a car because she can’t afford to pay for insurance, registration or gas, so she takes the bus to campus from UCLA Family Housing in Palms. Her son takes the bus for an hour and a half to attend University High School, and a neighbor, another UCLA student, helps walk Garcia’s daughter to school.

"Within my cohort of parenting students, we’ve created a community," Garcia said. "Because of this community, we’re able to survive and help each other out with babysitting, studying, transportation, anything needed."

Garcia said she has also received emergency funds from the university, and was hired to work as a peer mentor for Students with Dependents to advise other students about available resources.

Garcia hopes the sacrifices she’s making now will pay off in the future for both her and her children, she said. She plans to attend graduate school and work as an education administrator to help other students facing similar challenges.

"I am very proud of every single parenting student because I feel that, regardless of the obstacles and challenges we have been through, we contributed a lot to the university," she said. "Many of us are doing research or advocating for other students, so we contribute in many different ways."

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