Danielle Abraham clearly recalls the excitement she felt after receiving word that she had been accepted to UCLA for fall 2014. Her mother, Gabriela Abraham, was just as excited and incredibly proud to know that her daughter would be the first in the family to attend a four-year college.
A few hours later, something happened that neither ever dreamed would become a reality.
“When my mom called to tell me that she had also been accepted to UCLA, we both screamed,” said Danielle. “We were so excited. We didn’t even know what the next step was, but we knew we’d have to move closer to Westwood. It was really crazy. … For both of us to get accepted to UCLA at the same time was unreal.”
For Gabriela, however, elation quickly turned to a chilling sense of dread, she recalled. “Would I be able to finish? Would I be able to keep up? I speak English as a second language. I knew it would be hard, but I knew it would be ok. I had to do it.”
Three years later, the mother and daughter, both of whom transferred to UCLA from community colleges, are celebrating their commitment to education and to one another as they prepare to graduate with bachelor’s degrees on commencement weekend, June 16–18.
“The fact that I am graduating along with my daughter has been a family effort,” said Gabriela, who is 52. "Danielle, in a sense, helped me get acclimated to it. I couldn't have fully done this without her guidance and support.”
Following a gap year for both women, Danielle, 24, plans to pursue a master’s degree in media communications, public relations or journalism, while Gabriela, who is graduating summa cum laude with a double major in Chicano studies and Spanish, community and culture, has her sights set on earning an M.B.A.
“My mom grew up in a very small town in Mexico,” said Danielle, who majored in gender studies and double-minored in theater and Chicano studies. “She grew up very poor as one of five children. You can imagine coming from a place where you had almost nothing — not even plumbing at one point — to be where you are now. It’s huge.”
Gabriela’s mother is traveling from Mexico to see Danielle and Gabriela graduate.
“I know my grandma — everyone — is excited,” said Danielle, adding that one of her aunts will also be there. “They’re all talking about how my mom is graduating. It’s not even about me. It’s all about her, and I couldn't be more proud.”
Born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, Gabriela moved to Long Island, New York, with the help of her aunt when she was 20. While living alone in the city, she attended adult education classes to learn English and earn her GED while working odd jobs to survive. She wanted to continue her education at that time, but couldn't.
“It was impossible,” said Gabriela. “All I wanted was an opportunity to realize my goals given the fact that I was undocumented.”
She later moved to California, got married, started a family and launched a small scented-candle-making company that catered to the Latino community.
And then her marriage dissolved.
“I lost everything — my house, my business, everything,” said Gabriela, who became a permanent U.S. resident in 2004 and an American citizen in 2014. “I rented a room with my kids and just started over.”
At 44, she returned to school at Los Angeles Valley College to study business administration to help her relaunch her company, break the poverty cycle and demonstrate that, with hard work and determination, anything is possible. She said she also wanted to shatter stereotypes by showing that people — particularly women and undocumented immigrants — can thrive and contribute in immeasurable ways when given an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities.
Her children were supportive of her decision and are proud of how bravely and aggressively she pursued her studies.
“She works twice as hard as anyone I know,” said Danielle, who is currently studying abroad with the UC Education Abroad Program in Italy and Spain and will reunite with her mom on June 14. “For me, she’s an inspiration. For her to go back to college was a big deal. … That decision was a big motivation for me and my brother.”
Gabriela’s son, Adam, is currently studying engineering at Pierce College and plans to transfer to a four-year university — hopefully UCLA — once he graduates.
Helping other transfer students succeed
Transfer students account for one-third of UCLA undergraduates, and UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP) plays a tremendous role in helping prospective transfer students by providing them with the resources and confidence needed to transfer to UCLA and other four-year schools.
“It helps transfer students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, by providing access to information and helps them understand how to navigate the college world and how to get into prestigious universities like UCLA,” said Danielle. She transferred to UCLA after going to Pierce College and working fulltime to help support her family.
“As a low-income, first-generation transfer student, working with other transfers has been an incredible experience, and being able to give back to my community has been the biggest reward of all,” she said.
Among other things, Danielle served as an assistant coordinator for the annual STOMP Conference in 2016, which hosted more than 1,000 transfer students. She worked with CCCP for more than two years to provide access for and retention of first-generation and underrepresented college students. She and her mother have also remained active at their former community colleges as CCCP peer mentors.
“They are both hard-working and always volunteer to do what they can to help students like them by providing guidance based on their own experiences,” said Alfred Herrera, director of CCCP and UCLA’s assistant vice provost of academic partnerships. “They truly represent and embody what CCCP is about — helping underrepresented students become competitive applicants to UC and to give back to their community.”
Because their demanding schedules kept them from seeing one another, except in the early mornings or late evenings, working at CCCP and attending program events, trainings and workshops became the perfect way for them to spend time together, said Danielle.
“We’re constantly working as a team and keeping each other grounded, on track and not to forget deadlines. ... We’re more than mother and daughter. We’re friends, and we definitely help each other a lot. Our years together at UCLA have been amazing. It’s been a journey, really.”
Added Gabriela: “Danielle is a constant inspiration for me, and I am so proud of everything she has accomplished, as well as everything we have accomplished together as a team. She has supported me in so many ways, and my experience at UCLA would not have been the same without her.”
For more commencement news and photos, go here.