Photo of College Hall Bell Tower
University News

Triumph over Trauma to Achieve the American Dream

Graduate Spotlight: Iliana Woodhull’s heart-rending journey to graduation is a multi-generational celebration

Posted in: Hispanic Initiatives, Homepage News, University

Iliana Woodhull
First-generation college graduate Iliana Woodhull, who is proud of her Mexican heritage and becoming a U.S. citizen, has “walked through fire” to get to Commencement.

Trigger warning: This story may include content that some people may find upsetting and triggering. 

Three generations of women expect to shed many tears when Iliana Woodhull crosses the stage at Montclair State University Commencement on Monday, May 13. They will be joyous tears, celebrating how she’s achieved her American and academic dreams after overcoming years of trauma, including child and domestic abuse, immigrating to the United States illegally and surviving three attempts to take her own life.

When she receives her bachelor’s degree in Family Science and Human Development, Woodhull, 41, also will become the first in her family to earn a degree. Next year, she expects to attend the graduation of her daughter and commuting buddy Angel Bernales, a Montclair Psychology major. Their campus commute will continue, as Bernales, 22, completes her senior year and Woodhull returns to begin her master’s program and realize yet another dream, becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

A smiling Woodhull happily recalls sharing a memorable moment with her daughter when they both graduated from Sussex Community College in 2021. Monday’s Commencement, however, will be Woodhull’s big day, a day of healing individual and generational trauma.

“It’s been a tough road,” Woodhull says, choking back tears. “It’s a huge accomplishment, not just for me but for the women in my family. It’s going to be an unforgettable moment.”

Mother and daughter appreciate that this moment might never have happened. Woodhull’s most recent suicide attempt was just two years ago, and it is still painful for both of them. “That’s the one that woke me up,” Woodhull says, adding that a weeklong stay in a psychiatric hospital “opened my eyes to everything and how blessed I am.”

Being away from her family, especially her daughter, helped her realize all that she has to live for. “My girl. My daughter,” Woodhull says, crying. “I couldn’t keep her off my mind because it wasn’t fair to do what I did. She has always told me that I am a role model for her, that she looks up to me, and she sees strength in me, so I need to show her that I am what she believes.”

Wiping away tears, Bernales says: “I could have lost her. I am very, very grateful that she’s here today, and that Monday, she’s going to graduate. She’s going to get to walk across that stage, and she deserves it. She deserves everything good because she is such an incredible person. She has such a pure heart and good soul and has such love for her loved ones and for strangers. She’s a gem, she really is.”

A woman and her daughter embrace.
Montclair senior Angel Bernales gets emotional as she hugs her mother, Iliana Woodhull, a self-described suicide survivor, who will be graduating on May 13.

Woodhull has led a busy campus life. She is president of Montclair’s Tri-Alpha, the national honor society for first-generation college students. She has held two campus jobs: as assistant director for the Hispanic Student College Institute, where she started as a peer mentor, and as a research assistant to Emily Douglas, professor and chair of the Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy, and made the Dean’s List all along the way. As part of her studies, she also completed an internship at a child advocacy center, and has stayed on as a volunteer.

“Iliana has shown us that you can share your vulnerabilities, fears and challenges and build on your strengths to not only succeed but thrive,” says Associate Provost for Hispanic Initiatives and International Programs Katia Paz Goldfarb who has seen Woodhull at work.

Douglas says: “It is a pleasure to know and work with Iliana. She is positive, up-beat, motivated, honest and hard-working. She very thoughtfully incorporates her lived experiences into her academic work and will use it as a launchpad to be part of the next generation of social workers.”

Diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, Woodhull is open about her mental health challenges and describes herself as “a suicide survivor.” She shares her story to demonstrate that it’s possible to overcome obstacles and keep moving forward.

She’s passionate about helping people, particularly letting Latinas know about mental health services and reducing the stigma that can sometimes be associated with seeking help. A week before graduation, Woodhull was selected for an interview with Telemundo 47 news to talk about Montclair’s mental health services when New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Tahesha Way and Secretary of Higher Education Brian K. Bridges visited the campus to announce that college students will have free, 24/7/365 access to teletherapy, crisis connection and wellness programming through the remainder of the Murphy Administration.

School as safe haven

As a child growing up in Mexico, Iliana went to live with family friends, who would turn out to be her abusers. Her mother removed her from there and left her in the care of her grandmother, as she left Mexico for the United States. In her teens, Woodhull followed her mother to America, crossing the desert with her uncle, two strangers and the help of a coyote. She eventually made her way to New Jersey, where working as a waitress, she taught herself English by regularly asking customers, “How you say…?” says Woodhull, laughing, and looking words up in the dictionary. Today, one would never know that Spanish was her first language.

She married at 18 and had her daughter at 19. At 22, she divorced her first husband after he became verbally abusive, she says. She worked multiple jobs to provide for her child.  

It was from a restaurant customer that she learned she could acquire a GED, which she completed in 2011. She later married her husband, William Woodhull, one of her biggest champions, she says. She received a green card in 2018, and today, she’s a proud U.S. citizen. She’s also proud of her Mexican heritage, as evidenced by her stole depicting the Mexican and American flags.

“The only thing I wanted was to go to school and to make my family proud. As soon as I got my green card, that was the first thing I did – and learned to drive because I was always afraid to drive illegally like a lot of immigrants,” she says. “I started studying for my driver’s license and for school.”

Woodhull says she’s always loved school and learning. Looking back at her elementary school years in Mexico, she now realizes that “I loved it so much because it was my safe haven. It was the only place where I wasn’t experiencing any abuse. No one was hitting me and no one was telling me anything negative.”

A graduate and her college-age daughter walk on campus.
Montclair senior Angel Bernales says she’s proud of her classmate and mom, Iliana Woodhull, saying: “This is the next chapter in the beautiful book that she’s been writing, and I’m just so grateful to have been a part of it. I’m so grateful to be her daughter.”

Learning and unlearning

Woodhull initially thought she wanted to go into education but realized that she wants “to help children personally rather than academically. As a trauma survivor, I want to give children the voice I didn’t have,” she says. “Helping children and families has been a lifelong dream of mine, and Montclair helped me see that. Through my studies, I’ve developed a passion for advocacy and social work.”

With a Family Science and Human Development major and Psychology and Child Advocacy minors, studies have sometimes proved emotionally difficult for her. “All of the professors I’ve had here at Montclair know a little bit about me; the part that they know is my traumas because I have taken classes like child abuse and neglect, children and justice and poverty and families…everything that has to do with families, which is my major, has been triggering.” Woodhull says she’s had to leave classes related to child abuse and neglect; twice “paramedics picked me up from class and took me to the ER.”

Through it all, Montclair faculty and staff have been “very, very, very accommodating,” she says. “That’s one of the things that I love about this campus.”

Woodhull is still working to heal her trauma, including relearning that she’s worthy of her accomplishments. She copes, she says, with therapy, medication and meditation and mindfulness practices. “When you’re told that you will never amount to anything, you’re worthless, you’re stupid and nobody loves you, you believe that because it’s still in your brain,” she says, “So, when I started hearing the opposite, I’m like, wait a minute…Relearning all of that has been a struggle.”

It helps to have a supportive spouse and family, she says, and again, she credits Montclair faculty as a support system; she says a recent class titled Mindfulness Theory and Practice was “very helpful.”  

Bernales also has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and says that while “it’s a difficult topic for me to talk about,” she’s never resented her mother. “I understand her. I’ve always been there for her. Now I’m just coping with just the fear of me possibly losing her, and I don’t like the thought of that.”

Woodhull is proud of how far she’s come and continues to work toward healing, noting it has  been one year and eight months since she even had any ideas about suicide. “I haven’t had a single thought; I’ve had triggers but through mindfulness, I’ve learned to accept and recognize what I feel,” she says.”I accept it as part of my past but not as a part of my future. So, I leave it where it is, and I continue to live in the present and just keep moving forward.”

Today, those who know her have nothing but praise for her resilience and the happiness she exudes. And no one will be cheering her graduation more loudly than her daughter and mother Maria Mendoza. “The bond that the three of us have is very strong,” says Bernales.

Bernales has been her mother’s biggest hype woman, counting down the days to Commencement. “She has walked through fire and come out with some scars but with a smile on her face,” she says. “She’s here to spread awareness and joy to others, and she’s just an incredible woman, an incredible person.” 

Woodhull says she’s grateful to be living her American Dream but notes that it also comes with loss. All four of her grandparents have died while she has been in this country, so she didn’t get to see them again. “But my mom will be there,” she says happily.

Iliana Woodhull kisses her daughter Angel Bernales on the temple on the Montclair campus.
Iliana Woodhull, who will be graduating on May 13, kisses her daughter, commuting buddy and biggest hype woman, Angel Bernales.
Angel Bernales and her mother Illiana Woodhull hold diplomas.
Angel Bernales and her mother, Iliana Woodhull, graduated from Sussex Community College together in 2021 prior to attending Montclair State University. (Photo courtesy of Iliana Woodhull)
A graduate celebrates in front of the Red Hawk statue.
Proud soon-to-be graduate Iliana Woodhull loves Rocky and says she would easily win a contest of who has taken more photos with the Red Hawk sculpture.

If you’re struggling, it’s okay to share your feelings. The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline may be reached by dialing or texting 988. New Jersey college students receive free, 24/7/365 access to teletherapy, crisis connection and wellness programming via Uwill Mental Health & Wellness. For more information on Counseling and Psychological Services at Montclair State University, visit the department’s website.

Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.

You May Also Like:

N.J. Quintuplets Make History as They Graduate from Montclair State University

Montclair Football Stars Score Big in Business

From Childhood Tragedy to Commencement Triumph

Montclair’s SGA President Advocates for Change from Campus to Capitol Hill

N.J. Grandmother Earns Her Degree After Five Decades