The makeup didn’t entirely cover things up. It would get cakey and crack, she says, especially during her dishwashing shift in a hot kitchen, exposing her face tattoos, inked long before she took this job, as well as two others, to make a better life for herself and her unborn baby.

That was a half-dozen years ago. Today, Johanna Carbajal is in a place she never thought she’d be: graduating from the nation’s top-ranked public university and applying to law school in the fall.

“It’s been more than just second chances, it’s like six chances,” said Carbajal, 26, a political science major whose journey has taken her from foster care and incarceration to motherhood, higher education and a commitment to helping others overcome the systemic hurdles that nearly robbed her of her future.

It all hits her profoundly, she says, during the afternoons she spends walking around the Westwood campus with her daughter. The two, in fact, became Bruins together during the pandemic — Carbajal enrolling as a transfer student in 2020 and her daughter starting kindergarten at the UCLA Lab School a year later.

Raised by the system

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Carbajal found herself shuttling between foster homes and juvenile detention by the age of 12, sinking deeper into a life of gangs and crime. At 15, she had much of her face marked with tattoos. With no means to address her declining mental health and the trauma of her early experiences, she says, she’d given up on life before it really started.

Head-and-shoulders photo of Johanna Carbajal as a young girl
Courtesy of Johanna Carbajal
Carbajal as a child.

“I was literally raised to go to prison,” she said, recalling that she looked forward to incarceration. “At foster homes, I got treated way worse than I did in jail and probation camp. And with kids inside like me and no home to go to, why would I behave?”

Released from juvenile detention at 18, Carbajal was arrested within a month and served eight months in state prison. Though she’d managed to earn a high school diploma behind bars and had support from Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles–based gang intervention program founded by Father Greg Boyle in 1988, she found it hard to change old habits.

“You’re expected to turn 18 and be like, ‘Oh, I want a better life for myself,’” Carbajal said. “I tried, but every time you’re incarcerated, it creates more barriers, both psychosocial and structural, and it’s harder to benefit from the help and resources.”

By 19, she was sitting in jail again and facing another prison term. But this time it was different: She was pregnant. “It was then that for once in my life I thought about my future,” she remembered. “Deep inside, I did want a better life for us. Being pregnant motivated me to want to work on myself more when I was released.”

Carbajal petitioned the court for a joint suspension, an agreement that would allow her out to give birth and have bonding time with her child, provided she meet a long list of conditions. Thanks to the efforts of her public defender and a sympathetic judge, her request was granted.

Close-up shot Carbajal holding her infant daughter
Courtesy of Johanna Carbajal
Carbajal with her infant daughter. “I don’t hate my tattoos, but I hate the way people treat me and my daughter because of them,” she says.

On the outside, she reconnected with Homeboy Industries. They helped her enroll in community college, gave her steady work and, after the birth of her daughter, assisted her with the long and painful process of tattoo removal.

In the course of it all, a dream began to take shape: She wanted to study law, possibly even become a public defender. “I didn’t like saying it to a lot of people,” she recalled. “It made me nervous. Would I make it? Would I not?”

Nearing graduation from community college, Carbajal said, she was encouraged by Homeboy’s academic program coordinator to apply to UCLA. In spring 2020, she learned she’d been accepted.

A new life in on campus

Navigating university life as a nontraditional student — especially as a single, working mother from a background like Carbajal’s — can pose challenges. Lacking the educational preparation and opportunities many UCLA students have had, she worried about how she’d do academically. And she was self-conscious. What would students think about her appearance? How would parents at the UCLA Lab School react?

She soon found support and a likeminded community through the Bruin Guardian Scholars program, which provides assistance to students who have been or are currently in foster care. They helped her get her footing at the university and assisted with scholarship applications, tutoring and obtaining food vouchers.

“They give all these resources and a space to check in,” said Carbajal, who jokes that she basically lived at the program’s headquarters in the Student Activities Center, where the free coffee and snacks rounded out the other offerings. She also credits the campus’s Students with Dependents program, which helped out with afterschool activities for her daughter and proved “a really good community for supporting students like us.”

From left: Carbajal, her toddler daughter, a dog and a friend sitting on a blanket in a park
Courtesy of Johanna Carbajal
Carbajal and her daughter at an event for Homeboy Industries, the gang-intervention program that helped her get back on her feet after her release from prison.

The services helped her to focus on her studies, in which she excelled. “I learned to push myself and put in the extra time and effort to get good grades,” she said. “I did better than I ever expected.”

Majoring in political science with a minor in history, and eyeing a career in law, Carbajal applied and was accepted to the UCLA School of Law’s Law Fellows Program, which champions underrepresented students interested in pursuing legal careers, giving them the guidance and tools to succeed through lectures, mentorships, networking opportunities and law school preparation courses.

She also found valuable resources through the nonprofit Legal Education Access Pipeline and landed a monthlong internship in Spain through the off-campus Lex Fellowship program. While there, she worked with a variety of law firms, gaining insight into the legal system of another country.

The ultimate goal, Carbajal says, is to give back. She’s well on that road already, traveling regularly with her daughter to Mt. Tallac Continuation School in South Lake Tahoe to mentor at-risk youth. And looking ahead, she hopes to use the law to help those in a place she once was — by representing indigent defendants, working to expand rehabilitation services and helping to provide better housing opportunities for system-involved young people. 

“I’m going to do my part,” she said. Being able to afford a house for her and her daughter wouldn’t hurt either, she adds.

Wide shot of Johanna Carbajal sitting among the columns in the Royce Hall portico
David Esquivel/UCLA

And the tattoos? They’ve become fainter and easier to cover up after five years of treatment. “I don’t hate my tattoos, but I hate the way people treat me and my daughter because of them,” she said. “Going through life with them has been difficult, but they remind me of my self-worth and to be proud of where I come from — and also that I deserve to be here.”

And while she’ll receive her diploma at Pauley Pavilion on June 16, Carbajal is still enjoying those campus walks through the Aleppo pines with her daughter, who delights in leaving snacks for the local squirrels. Sometimes her daughter asks if she’ll be able to go to a university like UCLA when she’s older.

The question, Carbajal says, reminds her of just how much untapped potential there is among residents from neighborhoods like hers, from backgrounds like hers and among formerly incarcerated people with kids.

“Being able to connect with my daughter in an environment like UCLA has been transformative, and we have felt welcomed here. But I am not unique,” she said. “My hope is that UCLA — and other institutions of higher education — continue to support creating space for people like me.”