Student Spotlight: Cheri Pearson

May 13, 2024
A photo of a woman smiling in a car.

Cheri Pearson

Cheri Pearson couldn’t believe it at first.

A published writer and childcare professional, Pearson worked for years to complete an associate degree from Foothill Community College in Los Altos while running her own business and raising four children. Two of her children had recently graduated from UC Berkeley, and her daughters, Madison and Meaghan, encouraged her to continue going to school.  

“I went ahead and applied for UC Berkeley with Madison, and when the results came in, we waited to open the email together at the kitchen table,” Pearson recalled. “I remembered seeing confetti fall when my son was accepted, so I was stuck for a minute because I didn't see any. But then Madison hit the table and jumped up, letting me know she got in. After reading mine, I realized I had gotten in, too.”

Pearson has navigated academic and student life for the last two years as one of the more than 1,600 re-entry students (undergraduates ages 25 and older) studying at UC Berkeley. She’s balanced courses in English and Conservation and Resource Studies with running a business and raising a family. On Saturday, Pearson and her daughter Madison officially joined the ranks of the more than half a million living UC Berkeley alumni as two of the newest members of the Class of 2024.

Rausser College spoke to Pearson about her life and UC Berkeley experience before this year’s commencement.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born in New Jersey, but my family moved to Texas when I was very young. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad worked in the maquilas (factories) in Mexico as a plant manager. I grew up in a small community in the middle of the desert with six siblings, but there wasn’t a whole lot going on, so I felt a little isolated at times. I loved reading, making mud pies, collecting rocks, pretending I could fly by jumping off the doghouse, catching horned lizards, and dodging tumbleweeds that were larger than me. 

A vintage photo of a young girl standing next to a large spiny plant.

Pearson during her childhood in Texas.

I was accepted as a biology major on a full academic scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso during high school. I lived very far from the university then, so I moved closer and stayed with my brother. I ended up working in the mortgage business and my education fell by the wayside. I subsequently married and started working as a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines, and businesses in Texas while raising my children.

I covered the XPRIZE in New Mexico while working as a writer and met [XPRIZE Foundation Founder] Peter Diamandis and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I eventually became an ambassador for the XPRIZE Cup and was able to help 2,700 disadvantaged students in El Paso go to the XPRIZE. At the same time, I helped facilitate relationships between the competition, El Paso businesses, and the mayor’s office. Later, I ran the STEM division of a nonprofit and co-coached a FIRST LEGO League Challenge team, which is an international robotics competition for elementary and middle school students. The team won prizes at the national and world championships. I was also in charge of marketing and development for the team l and was able to procure NASA as a sponsor.

What influenced your decision to go back to school?

My family moved to California from Texas roughly ten years ago, and with the move, I realized that my two oldest children could test out of high school and go to community college. They ended up starting at Foothill Community College in 2015. I decided to go back to school around the same time because I was going through a divorce after almost 25 years of marriage and I knew I wanted to start a new career. It was a very difficult transition, but it was one that had a purpose. I opened a small family home preschool licensed by California and raised my children—who were between the ages of 12 and 17 at the time—with sole custody. I was really honored to be able to support my kids by creating this business, but it was a lot. Childcare providers operate on slim margins and enrollment can be unpredictable.  On top of raising my children, running the preschool was a 50-hour-a-week job, so I wound up taking a break from Foothill. 

A photo of two women holding a a Cal pennant in front of sign reading Foothill College

Madison and Cheri at Foothill College.

I went back to school online in 2018 and earned an Associate’s Degree in English in 2020.  I didn't think I would be able to finish school—I thought I'd get an associate's degree and that would be it, but my daughters offered to help with the business so I could keep going. I had seen how successful the transfer process had been, so I knew it was possible. My first child was accepted to and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in History. Then my second child was accepted—this was his dream school. He graduated with a degree in molecular environmental biology and is now a graduate student in the lab of Integrative Biology professor Rebecca Tarvin. My daughters went to Foothill during the pandemic, and I subsequently went back to school online to complete courses for transfer. I spent my days working and nights and weekends studying. 

While it was tough, Foothill provided me with an amazing education. The faculty there weren’t just interested in teaching you English; they were interested in developing critical thinking skills and being responsible citizens. They allowed for creativity, were approachable during office hours, and helped shape my understanding of racial inequalities and environmental issues. I'll never forget the instructor I spoke to about the challenge of being a working single mother, business owner, and first-generation college student. It was a lot to balance at that point, but she worked with me so that I could take the course. She told me, “Far be it for me to be the gatekeeper to your education.” That has stuck with me through all of this because you often run into people who will close doors to you because they don't have the time to understand what's going on in your life. But occasionally, you run into people who are truly compassionate and understanding—and I was very fortunate to have several Foothill professors like that.

What drew you to the Conservation and Resource Studies (CRS) program at Rausser College?

A photo of two women holding up a letter in a car.

Cheri Pearson (right) and her daughter Madison hold up their UC Berkeley admissions letters.

Childcare was one of the first services to open outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not too long after I opened my business again, we were hit with a series of wildfires and days with bad air quality that forced us back inside. Because there were such strict rules for ventilation and masking during the pandemic, I reached out to the California governor’s office and advocated for PPE and air purifiers. The regulations were even harder to deal with during the heat. A lot of people can’t afford an air conditioning system, and some years the heat is intense and lasts for many days without cooling off at night. Childcare providers were dealing with a trifecta of challenges—heat, bad air quality, and COVID. We were stuck inside without relief. It was a scary time for us because there was so much uncertainty during the pandemic and many providers had immunocompromised family members.  

I was ultimately accepted to UC Berkeley for English but I couldn’t stop thinking about those environmental issues. I looked through the course catalogs and found that I was drawn to many of the environmental classes. Once I spoke with Sarah Rhoades, the undergraduate advisor for Conservation and Resource Studies, I knew I had found my academic home. I loved the freedom to create an interdisciplinary degree and take courses that fed my interests. It’s also such a dynamic and important field because climate change is affecting us now. I chose courses that would build an even greater understanding of climate change, fossil fuels, urban ecology and planning, and wildfires. 

Which courses did you enjoy most?

Urban Ecology with Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) professor Christopher Schell was amazing, especially how he used the One Health approach to demonstrate the importance of biodiversity. Professor Alastair Iles’ class on the politics and practices of sustainability was one of the best courses I ever took and helped me look at the world differently. We learned about lock-ins and how to arrive at a solution that benefits both communities and stakeholders. Climate Justice with Professor Meg Mills-Novoa was very informative, as was Fire: Past, Present, and Future, taught by Professors Scott Stephens and Kent Lightfoot. Those courses were instrumental in my decision to add a degree in environmental work. Prose Nonfiction with Amy Rowland, a creative writing lecturer in the English Department, helped me find my area of interest—the intersection of literature and the environment—for my CRS degree. And of course, I loved classes on Shakespeare, film noir, and the art of the Black diaspora, but what surprised me was how much my courses ended up speaking to each other.

For ESPM courses I wrote op-eds, policy briefs, reports with sustainability suggestions for think tanks, and investigative journalism articles that centered around wildfires. My English courses taught me close reading, critical thinking, and the moves writers make. I brought this all together through my creative writing courses, where I was able to write stories that were influenced by my environmental coursework. I’m excited because I am graduating from Berkeley with a portfolio I would like to continue working on for publication.

What has your experience as a re-entry student been like?

Three people sitting down in a stone stadium.

Cheri Perason and two of her children attend a Cal Football Game.

I was initially concerned about Golden Bear Orientation (GBO) because, as an older student, I didn't really feel like GBO fit me. But as soon as I went to my first classes, I felt like I belonged. Now, when I talk to people who are older and in my generation who are concerned about the future, I think about the students I've met in my classes who have always approached me with openness and kindness, and have taught me things and allowed me to participate in a way that's collaborative, helpful, and flexible. I tell people that even though we face a lot of existential challenges like climate change, I’m not worried because I’ve met so many impressive students who care deeply about the world.

I would also like to add how important the graduate student instructors have been. Every single one of them was approachable, made the coursework accessible, and was vested in my success as a student. My stepfather passed away during my first semester at Berkeley. Two of my graduate instructors, Aaditee Kudrimoti and Delarys Estrada, sat with me outside and helped me through difficult moments. They were present, attentive, and caring.

How did you balance it all?

My first year here was a blur. I was up early a lot to beat the traffic here from San Mateo and tried to sneak in a cup of tea between full course loads two to three days a week. My son, Kannon, gave me access to the grad lounge so I could get some rest, but many times I drove home exhausted. A couple of days a week, I worked at my childcare. I was lucky to have very supportive families of the children I taught that first academic year. Thankfully, my daughters helped me run the business—I wouldn’t be here without their contribution. Madison was able to be added to my license because she was older. She knew exactly what was going on and how to do things since she grew up within my business, but it was a great struggle for her to juggle the schedule as well since she is a Chemistry student with intense coursework so I looked into options. We took turns running the preschool until 2023 when we moved into family housing at the University Village in Albany.

A photo of two women in graduation regalia holding up a program.

Cheri and Madison Pearson after the 2024 UC Berkeley Commencement.

Closing the business was a leap of faith, but ultimately I’m thrilled that I was able to pursue my education. With the move, I hoped that instead of commuting and juggling the business, I could take a year to focus on internships or research. I’m very interested in wildfires and wildfire suppressants and their effects on ecology, but then I came down with COVID last August, which affected me until November. It kind of felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. This is the first semester that I was able to feel like I didn’t have to worry so much about the business or recovering from COVID, but at the same time, even as a re-entry student, there’s still this realization that I'm graduating and I need to find a job.

What was it like being enrolled at the same time as your daughter?

I am very grateful for all she has done and to have shared this experience with her.  She is a wonderful person and incredibly smart, kind, and dedicated. Sometimes we would carpool together on Friday or take BART and have a cup of tea when we got to campus. Now that we’ve transferred here, I always reach out and ask if she’s hungry or wants something to eat. There have been a few times my daughter and I have met up at a cafe, which has been really lovely. But I also wanted to make sure that she felt like she had autonomy and independence. The dynamics changed from running a family business to both being here for school. It’s a delicate balance to walk—you're a parent and also a student, but your child is here too.

Any final reflections?

I’m grateful for friends and family who have supported me on my journey. I’m also very thankful for UC Berkeley.  I feel like they appreciate students who work really hard to achieve their dreams and make a positive difference in the world. They’ve invested in my whole family and the education that I've received here has been amazing. My youngest daughter just finished at Foothill with degrees in physics and engineering. She was just accepted into 10 colleges including UC Berkeley for mechanical engineering, so there’s a possibility that my last child will also come to Berkeley.

But most of all, I will miss walking through this peaceful, beautiful campus. Many times I have thought about the students and faculty who have walked these tree-lined paths before me—Jack London, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Steve Wozniak, Joan Didion, and Maya Harris—and I end up feeling like I’ve been part of something bigger than myself.