Darielle Davis was in middle school when she did the calculation: 2011. If she went to college, that was the year she'd graduate.
College had been a distant thought until that day, when a school social worker -- who, like Davis, grew up in a poor West Oakland neighborhood -- told her that if she worked hard, she could graduate from UC Berkeley, like he did.
Memories of that conversation came over Davis last month as she took her last final at UC Berkeley. "I've been thinking about college since middle school, and now it's happened," she said. "It's just so surreal."
Davis, 21, graduated with a degree in political science and a minor in African-American studies. She completed her undergraduate studies four years after graduating as the valedictorian of her class at EXCEL, a small high school on West Oakland's McClymonds campus.
But she didn't walk the stage at Zellerbach Hall alone. She held the hand of her 20-month-old son.
Those who know Davis marvel at her intense determination -- her ability to set goals, plot the steps needed to reach them and keep her focus. So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that she graduated right on schedule.
On Sept. 17, 2009, Davis delivered Deric Washington Jr. Less than two weeks later, she took a final exam and returned to class.
When Davis learned she was pregnant, she and her boyfriend, also a UC Berkeley student, moved out of the dorms and into family student housing. "It was very scary," she said.
Her mother, Beronica Cain, insisted that Davis continue her studies, uninterrupted, and promised to help with the baby, especially during midterms and finals. Cain said her daughter had worked too hard -- and that she had sacrificed too much -- to risk not making it.
"My mom said, 'It's important that you finish, and that you finish strong,' " Davis said.
Cain said that when her children were growing up in West Oakland, she constantly feared for their safety. She said she sometimes worked three jobs to afford a car so that she could drive Davis and her siblings directly to their destinations, whenever possible. Some children in the neighborhood took on adult responsibilities to help their struggling families, Cain said, but she wanted her kids to focus on their schoolwork.
"We hated where we lived," Cain said. "That was motivation to push us to do better."
But it wasn't just a quest for a better life that drove Davis to succeed in college. It was the chance to immerse herself in a world of ideas, and to surround herself with others who were doing the same.
"You meet so many people. Interesting people," Davis said. "The conversations you get to have -- you learn about life."
African-American Studies Professor Na'ilah Suad Nasir said Davis has the intellectual curiosity, research skills and drive to enter academia, if she chooses to. But, she said, the young woman's passion for engaging in real-world problems might lead her down a different path.
Nasir said she admired Davis's maturity and her ability to balance her responsibilities as "a mother and a scholar and a partner," all while working at Jamba Juice on the side.
"I think that girl's going to go somewhere," Nasir said.
Brian McGhee, the social worker and UC Berkeley graduate who urged Davis to set her sights on college, told her just that -- at her graduation.
"I told her, 'Hey, you made it. You followed your dreams, and now the sky's the limit,' " McGhee said.
Davis now lives with her son in an apartment near Lake Merritt. She is pursuing a master's degree in education, mostly online, from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. As she earns her degree, she will work with Oakland middle school students through a program run by Citizen Schools, a nonprofit.
In her new role, Davis hopes to help kids set goals and believe that they can reach them -- just like she did, with a little nudge, nine years ago.
We featured stories about Henry Grant and Darielle Davis in 2006 and 2007, when they were still Oakland high school students with dreams of graduating from college. Four years later, despite unexpected, life-changing events, they have earned bachelor's degrees from top universities.
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