Dreams Deferred: Pandemics and First Generation College Graduates

College graduate walking with her cap and gown.

Alexia Sánchez imagined a different ending for her final semester at the University of Iowa (UI), but she found out shortly before spring break that she wouldn’t be returning to campus because of COVID-19. Her remaining classes would be conducted online, and all events, including her graduation ceremony, were cancelled. “Never in my life would I have expected to end my college career in a pandemic and not finish it out,” Sánchez said in a recent phone interview with Luz Collective.

She’s sad that she missed senior traditions and didn’t get to finish the list of things she wanted to accomplish before graduation. While millions of college seniors around the country are in the same position, this milestone carries more weight for first generation college students like Sánchez. When she was just five, Sánchez’s mom brought her and her older sister from Mexico to Des Moines, Iowa, to provide them a better future. Attending university was always a major goal for Sánchez, but it was not an easy process, especially because since her mom didn’t attend college, she couldn’t turn to her for advice.

Her sister enrolled two years before her, so she could offer some guidance from her experience. Despite the challenges, Sánchez was able to take on different leadership roles and even studied abroad twice. She also double majored in political science and social justice, with minors in philosophy and Latino studies. Her hope is to workin the immigration field. “I was putting myself out there and it was all about making the most out of my college experience, because I know that my mom worked so hard for me to get in,” said Sánchez.

She spent the last two years starting a Latinx organization called Unidos Living Learning Community (LLC) to support and empower the Latinx students, the largest minority population at UI. Sánchez said a lot of students advocated for the LLC in the past, so she decided to help make it happen. The LLC will launch in the fall. “I definitely worked hard and it was not easy,” said Sánchez. “Not only trying to figure out college life and being a college student, but also helping to make a difference for other first generation students and other Latino students who maybe don’t have their family to rely on.”

When Sánchez received the notice that her graduation ceremony was cancelled, she said she hugged her mom and took a day or two to grieve. “I think that’s the heaviest thing on my mind and on my heart–my mom,” said Sánchez. “She crossed the border so I could cross the stage and the fact that that might not be possible, it hurts.”

The news was also hard for Selena Hernandez and her parents after they learned that they wouldn’t see her graduate from The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The youngest of eight girls, Hernandez is the first in her family to graduate with a college degree. “That’s what they’ve been waiting for the past five years,” said Hernandez.

Her father provided financial assistance with her tuition while she worked two jobs as a waitress and at a hospital to cover her textbooks and other expenses. Hernandez already has a job as a nurse, so her parents understand that cancelling the graduation ceremony is what’s best for everyone’s health to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Most universities are hosting virtual ceremonies with the option for the Spring 2020 graduates to attend in-person graduations for future semesters. Sánchez and Hernandez are not sure if they will be available to participate when that time comes.

Hernandez is invited to walk with the Summer 2020 graduates in July, a month after she starts her full-time job at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. She is thinking about hosting a graduation party with family and friends but not until after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay at home order expires on May 15. “There’s not much time between graduation and actually stepping into the real world where I have to work,” said Hernandez.

Sánchez was invited to walk during the December 2020 ceremony, which she tentatively plans to attend. Her grandparents planned to fly from Mexico to attend the Spring ceremony, but Sánchez isn’t sure what will happen. “That’s such a long time from now,” said Sánchez. “I don’t know if I’m still going to be in Iowa or if I’m going to be working somewhere else or if my family will be able to travel.”

Online communities are offering the Class of 2020 celebrations of their own. #WeAllGrow Latina network is hosting theirs on May 15 filled with special guests and a DJ. Graduates are asked to fill out a form and submit a video by May 13 to participate.

Regardless of the ceremony, Hernandez is ready to finish the semester and start her new job in the emergency room at Our Lady of Lourdes. Her last semester of clinical training was cancelled due to the pandemic, but she continued to work her part-time student nursing job. While Hernandez didn’t work directly with COVID-19 patients, she saw how aggressive it was. Everyone who worked at the hospital was screened every day and wore masks while in the building. She saw coworkers dressed head-to-toe in protective gear to guard themselves from the virus.

“It’s scary to be a healthcare worker in times like this, but at the same time it’s an amazing feeling to be one of the special people that can help our community,” said Hernandez. “I can honestly say I’m ready to start this new adventure as a nurse, pandemic or not.”

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