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Shout Out to the First-Generation Graduates!

May 28, 2020

Posted by Andrea Salazar-Nuñez, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, UWCC

I remember my graduations very clearly, in particular my undergraduate and my doctoral graduations. Mainly because I couldn’t believe I actually finished those degrees! Both moments were surreal and a huge accomplishment for me and my family. During my undergraduate graduation I remember the 30 second speech I gave at La Raza cultural graduation that mentioned how it really took my entire family and relatives to get me to the graduation milestone.

I needed support in so many different ways along my path to graduation. It wasn’t just monetary it was food, life advice, a couch to crash on, a car to borrow, and someone to interview for my abnormal psych class. I just remember graduation meaning so much more than a ceremony. It was a time to thank my community. They couldn’t offer me educational or career advice, they had no idea what I was doing during college because none of them had ever had a chance to pursue higher education.

I have been reflecting on those moments because I empathize with the pain and disappointment that many graduates may be feeling right now during this pandemic. Not having the opportunity to walk across the stage with your name read aloud and your family screaming with pride. As a first-generation graduate it makes me tear up for those who were planning to experience that surreal moment when your family finally gets to see a tangible result of your hard work.

I also think about that time and remember that the ceremony was only momentary and the actual celebration I experienced was the gatherings with my family and the brief expressions of pride and congratulations that my family shared that really made it special. I don’t think anything can replace the opportunity to dress up in regalia and walk across the stage with music blaring. And I think it’s important to be honest with the grief that comes along with that missed opportunity. But I do think that the university’s way of celebrating doesn’t have to be the end all. We need to look to our family and community for finding ways to celebrate this unique and special moment.

And for those who ARE the community and family we need to step it up! Right now, during the pandemic it just may look different. Maybe syncing up multiple households and holding a BBQ via zoom. Or drive-by graduation party. Or maybe create a big 2020 graduate background and having a zoom party. It could be as simple as sending a care package to a graduate. Or better yet a card with money!

The point is that just because the pandemic has canceled everything doesn’t mean we should forget about all the hard work that has led to this milestone, in particular students who are trailblazers in their family. First-generation graduates have a special fire in them, and we need to honor them. They have had to negotiate so many tough situations, navigate academia blindly, make so many sacrifices, struggle with imposter syndrome, and on top of it all succeed in their studies.

They are the students who are opening up paths for other family members or community members who want to follow in their footsteps, and it’s not easy being a role model who barely gets it! Community members and families, this is a call to action, help make this rite of passage special for all graduates but especially first-generation graduates who may have felt ignored and lost for most of their academic experience.

As a first-generation graduate (four times over – A.A., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) to another first-generation graduate, I see you. You finally did it! Congratulations!

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