First-generation seniors, families mourn loss of in-person commencement

Ariana Arredondo

At first, Alessandria Garza said she was unfazed.

“I was like, ‘It's fine,’ but it’s when I called my mom and had to tell her that graduation was canceled (that) I just started bursting into tears,” theatre studies senior Garza said. 

Garza found out the news while scrolling through Twitter. After four years of looking forward to graduation, the class of 2020 would not be walking the stage and instead would celebrate through a virtual commencement. For Garza, the postponement was personal.

“Because this is the first (college) graduation in our family, like ever,” Garza said. “I just definitely felt like, ‘Why me?’”

A third of college students are first-generation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics data. The NCES reports that these students graduate at a lower rate than those whose parents have a four-year degree. 

Garza said that for her, graduating signifies breaking a cycle. She said walking the stage, diploma in hand, was going to be a big moment not just for her, but for her family. 

“As a first-gen student, all we ask for is 10 seconds of fame when you get to walk across that stage and get that diploma,” Garza said “So it's wild (after) these four years, I don't even get to sum them up with my family.”

After calling her mom, Garza said she got on the phone with her grandfather, who was supposed to travel to Austin from Mexico to see her walk the stage. 

“He's always told me, ‘Que la educación es la única cosa que nadie te puede quitar,’ which means ‘Your education is the one thing no one can take away from you,’” Garza said. “So he was saying that although my graduation was taken away, I still got my degree.”

As the first in her family to earn a college degree, biology senior Ana Silverio said she’s grateful for her education, but the virtual commencement feels anticlimactic. 

“Whenever you're (studying) late at night at the PCL, in the back of your mind and the last ditch of effort that's pushing you through is (that) one day, I'm going to be able to graduate in front of my family, get a degree,” Silverio said. 

Silverio said because the in-person commencement has been postponed, her family is now planning a small celebration in their living room. 

Like Silverio, radio-television-film senior Jonathan Castro said he has been looking forward to commencement his entire college career. 

Throughout college, Silverio has taken graduation photos for numerous first-generation students. When he saw them pose with their ivory first-generation stoles, he said he always imagined himself on the other side of the lens. 

“I always (thought) ‘Oh, when it's my turn, I'll wear it, and I'll wear it with pride,’ and (I’m) just not able to,” Castro said. 

Castro said although the postponement of the in-person commencement is disappointing, he and his family understand it is a necessary safety precaution. 

Though they also understand, Garza said she and her family were disappointed. 

“As a first-generation student, you're carrying years of your family feeling not good enough,” Garza said. “To walk across that stage, for my name to be pronounced, and for everyone to witness that, that's the moment where it's like, ‘Okay, we finally made it. We broke the cycle, we're out.’” 

Garza said her family is now looking for a way to celebrate her somehow, even if they have to build her a stage themselves.