For first-gen students, a cancelled graduation brings great loss
College seniors across the country are grieving the end of their college careers—not just because they’re ending, but because of how it happened. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused students to be evacuated from campus before the end of the semester; classes to be cut short or transition to online; and graduations to be canceled, postponed, or reimagined virtually. Graduation ceremonies may be long and full of monotonous name-readers, hard metal chairs, and sweaty polyester gowns, but they’re a testament to the years of hard work that it took to get there, a testament that college seniors won’t get this year—at least not in the same way.
For many first-generation college students, the loss of graduation comes with an even stronger sense of grief. For them, walking across the stage and receiving a diploma isn’t just about celebrating the past four years; it’s about breaking down barriers and making history as the first in the family to earn a college degree. For Josee Matela, a first-generation college graduate from Boston University, finding out that graduation wouldn’t be happening in May was like a punch to her gut after so many years of putting in the extra work.
“The diploma has my name on it, but it’s not just mine. It’s my family’s; it’s my community’s,” she tells HelloGiggles.
When it came time to apply for college, she had to take the lead herself. She comes from a family of Filipino immigrants and grew up in a low-income household, raised by her single mother. Her mother had never filled out the FAFSA or the Common App; she didn’t have the same tools as parents who went through the process themselves. “I began to realize that I had to advocate for myself,” Matela says.
After pulling together application fees and navigating all of the paperwork, the fate of her future rested entirely on financial aid. Fortunately, Matela was accepted into her dream school, Boston University, with scholarships enabling her to attend—but the struggle didn’t end there.
“College is supposed to be the great equalizer. [As college students], we’re all going to the same classes, getting the same degrees. But what I’ve noticed is that it’s so easy for [first-generation] students to fall in between the cracks because of the different levels of privilege that still persist,” Matela says.
Part of this privilege is simply having a parent to call to get advice on things like going to office hours, choosing the right classes, or applying for internships. As a low-income student, Matela also didn’t have the privilege of going to school just for school. She worked six different jobs in her final year to support her studies, and her grades suffered because of it, but she didn’t tell anyone.
“After having to be so independent about my trajectory, it felt like I couldn’t ask for help,” Matela says. “I couldn’t admit that I was struggling or that I wasn’t at the same level as my peers.”
She kept her head down throughout college, not wanting to bring attention to her first-generation identity. When the pandemic struck, however, she started reflecting back on everything she had been through and began to see this identity as a point of pride, not shame. She started thinking about others in the first-generation community and wanted to do something to uplift, unite, and empower them.
Matela created the website firstgengraduates.com as a sort of “digital yearbook” for all of the first-generation graduates of 2020 and a way to bring more visibility to their experiences. She spread the word about the project via social media, asking first-generation students to share their stories with her. She’s been conducting individual interviews with each student, then publishing their stories along with their photo and LinkedIn pages. Looking ahead, Matela hopes to expand the website to include next-step resources and tools for students like her.
After all, this year’s college seniors aren’t just losing their graduation ceremonies; they’re also losing a sense of security as they go out into the “real world.” College is all about preparing for the future, but with the effects of coronavirus on the economy and the job market, the entire landscape of what the future can become has changed, and no one could have prepared for it.
“As the world is in flux and a lot of populations don’t know what’s going to be next, first-gen graduates are like, ‘What do we do now?’ We thought we did everything right, and now it’s all being shifted,” Matela says.
Jennifer Suryadjaja was one of the first few students Matela interviewed for her website. Suryadjaja is an international student who came from Indonesia to the U.S. for school, starting out at community college in California before transferring to Boston University to get a degree in communication studies. On top of learning how to navigate a new city and country, Suryadjaja had to navigate dining halls and dorms, places that were especially unfamiliar to her because she didn’t have anyone explaining how it all worked. Like Matela, Suryadjaja was focused on simply getting through school without asking too many questions. She remembers receiving a number of emails with subject lines like, “Are you a first-gen student? Use these resources,” but she dismissed them, not knowing what that title meant.
Just a few months ago, at the end of her college career, she finally Googled “first-generation student” and found out that all those emails were for her. If she would have known sooner that there were resources out there to help her navigate the unknown, she says, “I would have felt more comfortable to express my concerns or questions about things in college that were new to me.”
When news came that graduation would have to be postponed, Suryadjaja had to make a call home to tell her parents to cancel their flights and hotels. They were supposed to travel to Boston for the graduation ceremony, then take advantage of the trip overseas to explore California before heading back to Indonesia. Now, none of this will be possible to do anytime soon. “They were just very dejected to hear about [our plans being canceled],” she says.
The disappointment hit Suryadjaja just as hard as it did her parents, but she didn’t feel like she had the time to dwell on it or to even celebrate her accomplishments in another way—at least not yet. As an international student with hopes to stay and work in the U.S., her sole focus is finding a job in the time that her visa allows.
“I feel like I’m in a time crunch because the government only gives us a short amount of time to find a job before I have to essentially get deported if I don’t,” Suryadjaja says.
That exact amount of time depends on her optional practical training visa, which grants international students permission to stay in the U.S. and work in a field related to their studies. For Suryadjaja, her OPT allows her 90 days from July to October to start employment. If she doesn’t secure work in this time, she’ll have to leave the U.S. Because of this, she’s investing her time in searching for jobs instead of celebrating her accomplishments.
Tiffany Leung, an international student and first-generation graduate from Parsons School of Design, has had a similar experience to Suryadjaja’s. Planning to travel from Singapore to New York for the graduation ceremony, Leung’s parents were also going to use the trip to travel around the U.S. to celebrate not only her graduation but also her dad’s.
Neither of Leung’s parents had the financial ability to go to college when they were her age, but her dad was recently able to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Melbourne. 2020 was going to be an especially important year for their family as Leung and her dad were supposed to graduate at the same time. Worried that his graduation ceremony would clash with his daughter’s in May, however, Leung’s dad put in extra work to graduate early last October. Now, both of them are missing out on a proper ceremony. While Parsons is hosting a virtual graduation on Friday, May 15th, it won’t have the same effect for Leung and her family.
“[Graduation] will just feel like it’s just any other day with me having a different Zoom call,” she says.
Like Suryadjaja, Leung is focusing more on what’s next than on celebrating the past four years. With the current state of the economy and the pressure to find a job, she says, “There’s not going to be any sense of achievement anytime soon.” Instead of applying for optional practical training to stay and find work in the U.S., Leung decided to go back to Singapore and figure out her next steps there. She has her sights set on doing a master’s program in the U.K.—after all, “a master’s [graduation] ceremony will be a good make-up for the bachelor’s one,” she says.
But just like it does for Leung, graduation holds multilayered importance for Madison Conklin, a first-generation graduate from the University of Central Arkansas. Both of her parents started their higher education but didn’t finish and instead chose different paths for themselves. Her father and mother, now a firefighter and an OB-GYN office manager, made a good life for themselves, Conklin says, but they wanted her to have more opportunities than they did—and they saw a college degree as the answer. Self-motivated and hard-working in school, Conklin was eager to go after this dream for both her and her parents’ sake, but there was something else standing in the way of graduation: a cancer diagnosis.
Conklin’s freshman year at East Tennessee State University started off great until she discovered a lump in her neck and spent a month in and out of doctor’s offices taking tests. In November of her sophomore year, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkins lymphoma, and she spent the rest of the semester in treatment. But she was lucky: After four rounds of chemotherapy, Conklin was cancer-free.
Determined to go back to school and continue pursuing her dreams to study art, she transferred to UCA to be closer to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for her ongoing physical and occupational therapy appointments. She says that her battle with cancer prepared her for the current pandemic, teaching her how to handle a future that is so unknown. “My situation has allowed me to trust the timing of how things will work out and that there’s no rush for tomorrow to have to make everything go as I planned,” she says. So when she found out that she wouldn’t get to experience graduation as she had hoped, she didn’t let the news overshadow her accomplishments.
“I was disappointed, but then my perspective put it into view that I’m here graduating still, which is something I didn’t know, two and a half years ago, was actually going to be a possibility,” she says.
That’s because during her 98 days under chemotherapy, she didn’t even know if she’d make it to junior year. Making it to graduation day, for both Conklin and her parents, is about beating the odds—which are stacked against both cancer patients and first-generation college students. So her parents made sure not to let the day go by without a proper (though untraditional) graduation celebration.
On Saturday, May 2nd, Conklin’s mom asked her to drive home to Memphis for a celebratory lunch, telling her to bring her cap and gown along for pictures. This modest lunch was actually a surprise socially distanced motorcade of 75 of Conklin’s biggest fans, aka her supportive family and friends. They drove by with handmade signs praising the graduate for her accomplishments, including one which read: “Cancer and COVID can’t hold you down.”
It’s true. With everything Conklin has been through, she maintains an optimistic outlook on her life, never putting too much pressure on things to go exactly as planned. Looking ahead, she’s planning to move back to Memphis, get her own apartment, and, hopefully, work for a children’s art program when it’s safe to.
Although Conklin doesn’t have the answers—she, too, is scared of what’s to come—she’s taking it day by day. In a blog post for St. Jude, she shared her story, along with a powerful message for all of the first-generation graduates and college seniors who are struggling alongside her with the loss of graduation and the reality of an unknown future ahead.
“COVID-19 will never take away our college years, the friendships we forged, or the knowledge we gained,” she wrote. “We have so much living still ahead of us. While the world is scary right now, I’m confident we’ll come out of this stronger and wiser. The Class of 2020 [is] ready [to] take this next step into adulthood, together.”