Cris Gomez ’15 never considered going to UC Berkeley a dream of his. Attending Cal just seemed out of reach to him—until he connected with people who showed him that Cal provided resources for non-traditional students, and that a bustling community of people from all walks of life awaited him.
Cris grew up in Hayward, California, not far from Berkeley. In Cris’s neighborhood, there were pressures to get involved in the “street life,” as Cris puts it. “I want to say if it wasn’t for a passion for football, who knows what would’ve happened.” Cris met the requirements necessary to play football in high school, but never had the necessary support at school to push him further in academics. “Nobody was really checking up on your grades or following you around making sure you were doing what you got to do. I can’t remember going to school sophomore or junior year, outside of football season.” When his senior year came, Cris realized he wanted to make a change. “[I] finally woke up senior year, like ‘What the hell am I doing? The least I can do is graduate.’” Cris began going to school from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., attending both traditional high school, after-school programs, and night school, and in his words, “barely graduated.”
With a low GPA, Cris felt the traditional route to college was not an option for him. In the fall of 2001, he enrolled at Chabot College, a community college in his hometown, and joined its football team. Cris realized that flying under the radar in academics would not cut it as a student athlete at Chabot. The requirements were far greater than what he was accustomed to in high school. Then, during that challenging first semester, came 9/11. Afterward, Cris felt called to the U.S. Air Force. “I was like, this is it. I’ve got to leave Hayward to grow up. Here’s the mission for me. It’ll be fulfilling, valiant, I’ll get to mature, I’ll get some benefits out of it as well.”
Cris served as a crew chief on the EC-130H electronic combat aircraft for six years, but as the years passed, he began to feel unsettled. “After my six years, I’m totally done. Along with maturing and recognizing certain international policies and dynamics that have room for much improvement, being young and passionate at the time, I didn’t know, really, how to grapple with these feelings. I just started building up animosity and becoming frustrated. When my time was up I knew, hands down, that I was ready for the honorable discharge to just get out and see what the world had to offer. And so I did that.”
After leaving the Air Force, Cris returned to the Bay Area. His wife Geraldine had previously attended Cal, leaving before she finished her degree. While at Berkeley, Geraldine had experienced impostor syndrome: feeling that she didn’t belong or fit in at the university. After years of being out of school, she decided she was ready to return to Berkeley and give it another chance. Though Geraldine applied to UC Berkeley and other schools, she decided to re-enroll at Cal after a phone call with Ron Williams, director of the Re-entry Student Program at Berkeley. Geraldine originally called the university seeking resources for student parents, but her phone call with Williams changed her outlook on the support she would receive at Cal.
As Cris explains, “Initially she was looking for the Student Parent Center. She ended up contacting, on accident, Ron Williams. And rather than just passing the buck, he took the time to get her set up with all the information she needed to come back and did a warm hand-off to the director, Alice Jordan, of the Student Parent Center.
And that for her was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. They didn’t have to do any of this. Especially when I’m just calling to get situated. It already feels like home.’” After that initial support from Williams and Jordan, and the Educational Opportunity Program team, Cris and Geraldine were further encouraged that Geraldine’s return to school at Berkeley was the right choice.
After his wife chose to return to Berkeley, Cris got a job with the UC Berkeley Police Department as a records technician. “During that time, my mind was just on supporting a family and working. No interest in school, especially given my 1.3 GPA experience with high school.”
“I really saw myself in them and was like, ‘Wow, maybe I can do this.’”
Through his wife’s re-entry at Berkeley, Cris was able to see a different side of the university. On campus, Geraldine met students from similar neighborhoods, who looked like her and who also had children. “We do belong here. We’re just as worthy,” Cris remembered her saying. Over time, Cris began interacting more with Cal student parents, which inspired him to go back to school. “I really saw myself in them and was like, ‘Wow, maybe I can do this.’”
Cris’s initial educational goal was to better understand his personal experience of war. As he explains, “Going back to school initially, I just wanted to objectively understand my lived experiences—but mostly my recent experience, which is international conflict.”
Cris grappled with his own unresolved questions about his experience in the military and wanted to learn more about various perspectives on war. “A seed just sprouted, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I really want to go back to school and make a change and really identify my lived experience thus far.’” Cris enrolled in Berkeley City College to meet his transfer requirements. When the time came to transfer, he says, “I did get into Berkeley and some other schools that shall not be named…. I knew from the get that it was Berkeley all along.”
“Now, along with education, came language with which to express myself and identify my lived experience thus far.”
Back at Berkeley, Cris became interested in sociohistorical dynamics and how humans interact. He found sociology most encompassing of his interests, finally putting words to the questions he had raised about his wartime experiences. “The more I learned, the more I fueled that fire that was already frustrated from my initial military service and experiences that I couldn’t put words to, or reflect on, properly. Now, along with education, came language with which to express myself and identify my lived experience thus far.”
Through his courses at Cal, Cris learned more about historical contexts of war, religion, and international policy, beginning to understand why he, a veteran, had mixed feelings about war. He saw a false dichotomy in rhetoric assuming that anti-war advocates do not support military members. As a veteran, Cris believes the two are not mutually exclusive. “I became even more passionate to advocate to end war. But I want to distinguish between being an advocate to end war and violence while still being able to support the troops. I think it gets mixed up in today’s world that that goes hand in hand. That if you want to end wars, or are anti-war, automatically you dislike troops and anybody who serves.”
Cris believes many people assume that Berkeley’s history of protests suggests the Berkeley campus community does not support military service members. However, as a veteran and student, Cris says he always received support from others in the UC Berkeley community. He only wishes other veterans knew what he knows to be true: “How great it is to be a veteran on this campus. From the Cal Veterans Support Center—which is absolutely robust as far as programming, services, and resources offered—to the way Berkeley processes the GI Bill for veterans, it is amazing.
[Veterans] are commonly amazed by how welcoming and how great an experience they have at Berkeley, compared to what they anticipated because of what they saw on the news, or what they’ve heard of Berkeley.”
After earning a degree in sociology and walking the stage at commencement with his children, Jalen and Jahir, Cris began working on campus at the Cal Alumni Association as a coordinator for the Alumni Scholars Program. Cris heard about the opportunity through another former student parent, a friend, who had been the program’s assistant director. As a former Achievement Award Program scholarship recipient, Cris had already formed a strong connection to the Cal Alumni Association.
A year later Cris welcomed his daughter, Milanca, and transitioned to a position with the Re-entry Student Program, where he now works with students, like his wife, who wish to find community and equitable support at UC Berkeley. Cris still felt a familiar itch to serve people beyond Cal, and he missed his military community and the sense of duty and fulfillment. With the support of his supervisor at the Re-entry Student Program, and the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, Cris recently returned to military service part-time as a member of a combat search and rescue unit with both federal and state missions while also working on campus when he is not away on orders.
Cris says one thing he loves about Berkeley is that everyone has their own lived experiences, and may come in with opposing or differing views, but are open to engage in discussions. When he joined the search-and-rescue unit, he considered that some of his colleagues—students from war-devastated countries, or with opposing views—might take issue with his return to the military. Instead, he found a level of support and empathy that he feels is unique to the “Berkeley bubble.”
As a student parent and veteran, Cris knows his experience is different from that of many college students. Cris likes to remind students battling impostor syndrome—like those in the Re-entry Student Program, or in assisted programs, who may doubt they belong because of their age—that “Berkeley brought them here and wanted them for a reason because they can enhance the classroom and the campus in so many ways.”
UC Berkeley helped Cris find some of the answers he sought about his views on war, the human experience, and international relations by providing him an education that encompasses a variety of experiences and perspectives. Now, Cris’s place on campus is in empowering and supporting others in finding community and resources so that the university can continue to expand its number of diverse voices in the classroom.
“I support all communities on campus, and I empathize and want to be an ally to humanity first and foremost, before any of my identities—whether it’s ethnicity, political, military. Human is what I am first, human. I work to see justice and equity for everyone. That’s first and foremost why I do what I do, on campus and off campus.”