This June, when Breanna Downey dons a cap and gown and walks across the stage to collect her diploma at UC Irvine’s commencement, she will have come full circle.
Downey has made the trip before — when she was a towheaded toddler and her mother, Jana Downey, graduated with the class of 1991. Until age 3, she lived on campus with her mother, a single parent.
“When people ask me why I chose to come to UCI, I always say, ‘It just felt like I was home.’ In a lot of ways, that’s not just a figure of speech for me,” Downey wrote in response to the UCI commencement website query “Do you have a story to tell?”
“I spent the first few years of my life in UCI day care, first at the Infant Toddler Center at Verano Place, and then at the Children’s Center. I also went to class with my mother. When she graduated, I walked onstage with her to get her diploma. Now, 20 years later, she’ll be at my UCI commencement.”
Jana Downey, the first in her family to go to college, was a full-time student when she gave birth to Breanna in 1989. “Mom used to sit me on her lap and read course books aloud. Molecular biology and organic chemistry were my favorites because they had the most colorful pictures,” Downey says.
“Mom told me she had an internship teaching seventh-grade life science, and she challenged her class to memorize the names of a number of bones in the human body. When the students protested, she made them a deal: They would only have to learn the bones I could learn. Mom said I knew almost every single bone in the human body. At a UCI open house, many of the students came to test me. For a 2-year-old, it was just a fun game of head, shoulders, knees and toes.”
While caring for a baby, her mother earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology in 1991 and a teaching credential in 1992. She now teaches science at a San Marino middle school.
Downey returned to UCI in 2008, transferring from Pasadena City College as a junior. “It was really distracting at first,” she says. “When I came to UCI, there were a lot of things I half-remembered, like the playground at Verano.
“As a student, I’ve gotten some interesting perspective on the beginning of my life from my mother’s point of view. Would I have been able to do what she did? Being the same age in the same place she was when I was born gives me a lot to think about. Considering all the pressure she must have felt, I have a whole new appreciation of how difficult it must have been.”
After getting a bachelor’s in global cultures next month, Downey hopes to pursue a career in international relations or perhaps go to law school. Cheering at her graduation — besides her mother — will be her grandmother, who didn’t think girls should go to college and had disapproved of Jana attending UCI.
“Now she’s come around. She actually helped pay for my tuition,” Downey says. “There have, of course, been struggles — mostly financial — along the way, but the idea of being up on that graduation platform once more is really exciting.”