Like many new students, 19-year-old Niki Morales felt a little anxious on her first day of classes this fall. Would the syllabus be overwhelming or the professor intimidating? Nearby, classmate Rebeka felt similar butterflies, but also worried about her three children at home. Would she have time to study after making dinner and helping them finish their homework?

Beyond sharing the first day jitters, these two students had other things in common: The mother-and-daughter pair entered UCI this fall as two of the campus’s 1,600 new transfer students.

For 36-year-old Rebeka, coming to UCI meant fulfilling a dream set aside when she became pregnant at age 16. But Rebeka and her husband, Felipe, always were determined that their four children would go to college. Raising a family in Lynwood, Calif., where fewer than 5 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree, this required constant focus. As her daughter explains, “It was never a question whether I would go to college. My mom and dad used to tell me, ‘You cannot become a negative statistic, and you cannot be part of a negative stereotype.’”

With encouragement at home, Niki became a star student at Lynwood High School, a member of the drill team, swim team, French club and ASB. But around the time Niki started considering colleges, it was Rebeka who started school again. Kept from working because of an injury, Rebeka seized the opportunity to go to college and train for another career.

Soon, both were enrolled at Cerritos College and planning their next move. Rebeka was intent on going to a prestigious campus. They considered UCLA and UCI, but Niki says, “I just knew UCI was the right choice for me.”

After being accepted to their campus of choice, the pair faced an even bigger challenge: balancing family, school and finances. Thanks to some hefty student loans, Felipe’s two full-time jobs and a commitment to teamwork that involves the whole family, Rebeka and Niki feel confident. Both are majoring in sociology and have enrolled in the same classes, so they can share books, carpool together and be study partners.

“We’re fighters, and that’s what will get us through this,” says Rebeka. For her part, Niki is already looking forward to being the first in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and will be proud to share that honor with her mom.

“I know this will open doors for me,” says Niki. “I want to be able to go back to my neighborhood and tell others, ‘you can do this, too.’”