"I knew that I was born there and I didn t want to go there specifically for that reason but it worked out kind of miraculously," Jillian Sobol tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
May 31, 2016 05:15 PM
Paul Asper/San Francisco State University Communications

In November 1984, a newborn baby girl was left by her mother in a box in a laundry room at San Francisco State University.

Hours later, two students found the baby girl, one of whom happened to be a nursing student named Esther who knew how to care for her until the paramedics arrived.

After a city-wide search for the girl’s biological parents and dozens of applications from couples hoping to adopt the her, she was placed with Sam and Helene Sobol, who named her Jillian.

On Friday, Jillian Sobol graduated from the university where her life began. She celebrated the achievement with her adoptive parents, Esther and her biological father – a loving and supportive extended family brought together through years of searching.

“I had my whole little crew on the other side of the field,” Sobol, 31, tells PEOPLE of her graduation day. “I was looking in their direction for the entire ceremony and I could really feel their love and support.”

Because of support she received from her adoptive parents, Sobol longed to know more about her biological parents “more out of curiosity than out of need,” she says.

When Sobol was 16, her mother sat her down and told her about the circumstances of her birth and discovery.

“I was happy that my mom told me because she was able to break it to me slowly,” she says. “She wanted me to empathize with my biological mother who she said must have been very scared. It was a different time and to have a baby out of wedlock wasn t acceptable.”

Sobol says her mother helped her focus on the kind strangers who came forward after her discovery – such as the students who cared for her and the many couples who came forward wanting to adopt her.

Sam, Jillian and Helene Sobol
Courtesy Jillian Sobol

“She helped me understand that there was this outpouring of love and caring from the city of San Francisco,” she says. “It made me feel special and cared for and I said, ‘I’m going to make all that worth it.’ ”

At 22, Sobol wrote to Esther and the two women met for the first time. The meeting went so well that Sobol felt emboldened to request information about her biological parents, who had been identified by campus police.

“I wanted to meet my biological father first because he wasn t the one who abandoned me,” she says. “He didn’t even know I was born.”

So, Sobol wrote her birth dad a letter and he traveled to California to meet her and take her and her family to lunch with his parents.

“It was a great first encounter,” she recalls. “I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been holding my mom’s hand the whole time. It was overwhelming but it helped me to understand a lot biologically.”

“My biological dad’s family is is Dutch and English and they’re loud and boisterous people,” she continues. “I finally learned where I get that from.”

Before reaching out to her biological mom, Sobol, who struggled with dyslexia in school and worked as a housekeeper and a waitress in her 20s, made the decision to pursue a degree in hospitality.

“I wanted to see if I could go back to that academic setting so many years after high school and succeed,” she says.

She enrolled in a culinary program at San Francisco City College and then “things kind of just fell into place,” she says.

While enrolled at San Francisco City College, she worked up the nerve to write a letter to her biological mother.

“I thanked her for giving me the gift of life and told her I was okay and that I hoped that she would write me a letter back,” she says.

As Sobol was waiting to hear back from her mother, she found herself drawn to San Francisco State’s hospitality management program.

“I knew that I was born there and I didn t want to go there specifically for that reason, but it worked out kind of miraculously,” she says.

Jillian Sobol at graduation
Courtesy Jillian Sobol

Sobol kept her own history with the university to herself until earlier this year when she wrote a letter to the university’s president.

“It was hard to keep the story in for the two years I was there because I felt like I wanted to tell everybody and nobody at the same time,” she says. “I just wanted to focus on my education but then the president sent me very encouraging words.”

Right around the time she wrote her letter to the president, she found a two-year-old message from her birth mother in a filtered messages folder on Facebook.

“I was very taken aback that I hadn’t seen it for two years, but it was nothing but heartwarming and sincere,” she says.

Sobol says she hasn t been able to find the words to respond to her mom, but she hopes she will know what to say later this year.

“I do hope in the future we can make contact and I look forward to that, but for now, I’ve been focused on graduating,” she says. “It feels like this goal I’ve been working towards for the past few years is finally here.”

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