For First-Generation Graduates, (Virtual) Commencement Honors Family Sacrifice

As part of WBEZ’s #ChiGradWeek, first-in-the-family grads share the triumph and heartache of graduating online amid protests and a pandemic.

Olivia Cruz First Graduate 3
This May, Olivia Cruz became the first in her family to graduate from college. She earned a degree in public health from University of Illinois at Chicago. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Olivia Cruz First Graduate 3
This May, Olivia Cruz became the first in her family to graduate from college. She earned a degree in public health from University of Illinois at Chicago. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

For First-Generation Graduates, (Virtual) Commencement Honors Family Sacrifice

As part of WBEZ’s #ChiGradWeek, first-in-the-family grads share the triumph and heartache of graduating online amid protests and a pandemic.

When Olivia Cruz found out her graduation from the University of Illinois at Chicago would be held virtually, she almost cried.

Then, she felt guilty.

“I didn't want to be selfish … because graduation is not happening when there’s thousands of people dying because of COVID-19,” Cruz said. “There’s so much uncertainty, and I’m here complaining and sad about graduation.”

This year, the class of 2020 is forced to attend their graduation ceremonies online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a necessary but upsetting move for hundreds of thousands of students. But it especially stings for students who are the first in their family to earn a college degree.

For many first-generation college students, graduation is not just the culmination of years of term papers and studying. It’s a tangible symbol of a generation of sacrifices made by their families — by immigrating to the United States, working multiple jobs or finding ways to provide opportunities many parents didn’t have themselves.

Cruz immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in her early 20s, speaking only limited English. She has dark brown hair and a warm smile nestled between two dimples. She’s 28 now, and the first in her family to earn a college degree after earning an associate's degree at Olive-Harvey College. Her father graduated from high school, and her mother did not attend school past the elementary grades.

She looked at the graduation ceremony as a way to celebrate her mom and dad.

“It was like a gift from me to them, like, ‘Look you did good. You did good parenting,’” said Cruz, who lives in Chicago’s East Side neighborhood. "'You didn't have to go to college to know how to raise me. You did everything you could, and this is the result of it.’”

Cruz’s mother was visiting her grandmother in Mexico when the pandemic began and has been stuck there. So, she celebrated her virtual graduation in mid-May with her father and sisters. They made tacos and watched UIC’s livestream at their house.

“They were cheering as if they were actually in the auditorium,” said Cruz, who earned a degree in public health. “It was a very proud moment. Although it wasn't how I envisioned it for so many years, I think it was special.”

“Something no one in my family has done”

Another UIC graduate, Edith Mendez, felt similarly. Her father stopped attending school after elementary school. Her mother earned a bachelor’s degree in Mexico, but couldn’t use it in the U.S. Instead, she stayed home and raised Edith and her sisters.

“It’s about women empowerment for my family,” said Mendez, who is from west suburban Berwyn. “For me to not be able to celebrate this with my family, and being the first to graduate as a woman and feeling powerful and being a role model for my younger sisters, it was a big disappointment.”

Edith
Edith Mendez celebrated her virtual graduation from the University of Illinois at Chicago with family at their Berwyn home. Courtesy of Edith Mendez

Edith wanted her younger sisters to see her use her teaching degree to become independent. She also wanted them to see her use it in the workforce.

“That’s something no one in my family has done completely,” she said. “I actually get to practice what I studied for.”

Edith already has a job offer as an art teacher in the fall.

For her virtual graduation, her family decorated the fence in their yard writing, “Felicidades Maestra Edith,” a nod to her teaching degree, in red and white letters on blue squares. She wore a stole from her sorority and a colorful Mexican sarape stole.

“College was always something I wanted”

Graduate LaTonja Dotson is the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, too, from DePaul University — and she did at 43 years old.

She earned a degree in marketing psychology and plans to go for a master’s degree in the same field.

“College was always something I wanted, but I was more afraid because I didn't bounce on it directly after high school,” said Dotson, who lives in Naperville with her family. “I saw my other classmates who went on to have careers, and I felt like I was just stuck.”

LaTonja
LaTonja Dotson is graduating from DePaul University at age 43. She's the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree. Courtesy of LaTonja Dotson

She has a 12-year-old son who has childhood apraxia, a speech disorder. She knew school would be challenging for him and wanted to set a good example.

“I was his role model, so I had to get my college education,” Dotson said.

DePaul is holding its virtual commencement this Saturday. Dotson says she’s devastated that she, too, won’t get that in-person graduation. But she’s trying to find a silver lining: She can invite whomever she wants virtually. Her mother, who lives in Arizona, sent her a front lawn sign that says “Congratulations, Class of 2020.”

“Now all my friends and family can still have an opportunity to witness my accomplishment, and that's really warming to my heart,” she said.

But as Dotson was preparing to commemorate this major accomplishment, news broke of George Floyd’s death. Floyd, who was black, was killed on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after a white officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes while detaining him, prompting protests across the country.

Dotson, who is black, said it’s become even harder to celebrate while she’s feeling and witnessing so much pain. Her husband encouraged her to allow herself to be happy about all the accolades she’s receiving, even though there’s suffering.

“[He said], ‘You have to find joy, and this is the joy that you're going to give us and our family right now,’” Dotson said. “But the pain will still be there.”

Cruz, the University of Illinois at Chicago graduate, is also seeing her graduation as a call to action. With her degree in public health, she wants to improve health disparities in low-income communities. She recently completed an online contact tracing training program through Johns Hopkins University as she starts applying for jobs.

Cruz said the national conversation about racism and inequality is highlighting the importance of her career choice.

“I think these are perfect times to come out and help others, and what a best moment to graduate and start caring for social issues?” Cruz said.

Now that she has a college degree, Cruz said she recognizes she has more privilege than others in the Latino community. She said especially now, it's time to use that privilege to give back.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.