Students from the class of 2020 have faced the loss of cancelled or postponed graduation ceremonies across the nation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for every student, the story, the impact and the weight of the loss is very different.
At Georgia State, a school with more than 53,000 students from over 170 nations and territories, it boasts that 25% of its students are first-generation students — the first to attend college in their family.
For students that are both first-generation students and the children of immigrants, that story is unique. This is that story, as told by four Georgia State students who anticipated experiencing graduation this spring.
Adela Lopez grew up in the Buford Highway corridor of Atlanta with her three brothers and her parents who both immigrated from Mexico.
“We were always pressured to go to school and do really well. Otherwise they pulled the ‘We didn’t cross the border for you to fail’ card,” she said. “And it’s always worked. It’s always guilted us and we’ll be like, ‘Okay, I guess I should do a little bit better.’”
For Lopez, her parents just wanted to see them graduate high school, college was always optional.
“But I was the only one who wanted to go. That being said, financially, that just didn’t seem feasible,” she said.
Lopez said that regardless, she still wanted to try to make it happen and applied for the Gates Millennium Scholarship and was accepted.
It gave her a full ride to any school of her choice. She chose Georgia State.
Since then, she’s come a long way. And when she opened her email to find the initial letter from Georgia State about commencement being canceled, she wasn’t prepared for the news.
“I remember reading that and immediately, like, my heart kind of dropped, and I cried for a little bit,” she said. “And I didn’t know how to tell my parents.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and walked out to the living room, sitting on the couch next to her oldest brother. She handed him her phone and he read the letter.
When her mother came into the room, Lopez explained. She said her mother stared at the floor, didn’t have much to say and finally went to tell her father.
“I didn’t really want to face it, so I just got up and went back to the room and just kind of laid there and cried for 30 more minutes,” she said.
Ever since she was little, when her mother didn’t know what to do or say, Lopez said she has a tendency to braid her hair. This night was one of those nights.
“Except when I was younger, it was a little bit cuter just because I had longer hair. But I have a bob cut now, so she was just like pulling on it,” Lopez said.
As Lopez remembers the moment, she said it was a hard one, for both her and her family.
“I mean, it was devastating. I had to tell my family and I was just not prepared for that,” she said. “I understand that it’s better for commencement to be canceled or postponed, because of COVID, but it definitely has been a big blow, just because I’ve worked so hard to reach here.”
For her, it was much more than her own achievements.
“I guess I got kind of frustrated with that just because, visually, they won’t be able to see that their sacrifices were worth it,” she said.
According to Lopez, her grandparents in Mexico had already purchased plane tickets, which the airline is allowing to be used for a later date, and she even placed an early order for her cap and gown. Lopez plans on attending commencement when it’s rescheduled.
Looking back at her college career, she remembered as a freshman in her dorm hearing about convocation. Not really knowing anybody at the school, she decided to go.
She said she entered the gymnasium, where she was handed a program with a medallion that said “class of 2020” before she sat on the bleachers alone.
“But I remember, President Becker was like, ‘We want you to keep this medallion with you … So the next time you wear this medallion will be when you walk across that stage,’” she said. “And so I still have the medallion but it’s so sad.”
Jazmin Mejia has been working for four years, just like many other graduates, toward her graduation. But up until then she was never sure if her mother would see her graduate.
Mejia’s mother is a Temporary Protected Status recipient from Honduras. She only barely received an extension in January, two weeks before it was set to expire, along with the estimated 57,000 other Hondurans living in America with TPS.
“So, up until that point where Trump announced that he was going to extend it, I didn’t even know if my mom was going to be able to see me walk at commencement,” Mejia said.
For her, this meant years of anxiety leading up until the commencement ceremony, contemplating in her head if her mother would be here to see it or not. In the end, with graduation being temporarily cancelled, regardless of her mother’s extension, all of that fear felt like it was for nothing.
“Literally my entire college career, I was nervous that my mom wasn’t gonna be able to see me because of her status as a TPS holder,” she said. “And then now that we’re not even having a commencement [now], it’s just kind of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ All of that anxiety for nothing.”
At Mejia’s inauguration as Student Government Association President nearly a year ago, her mother was present. But for Mejia, she feels that graduation is a bigger deal than inauguration.
“With SGA, I’m advancing myself as an individual. But being able to hold this degree allows me to also help out my family,” she said. “It’s not only affecting me as an individual, but I can give back to my family … Knowing that I overcame just another barrier that prevents us from advancing.”
Mejia is thankful for the announcement from Georgia State that graduation isn’t entirely canceled, but instead just postponed.
“I’m confident in Georgia State and their decisions because they boast all the time about how, how many first generation students, how many low income students they help,” she said. “I know GSU is going to want to do something for their students because they really care for them.”
Between plane tickets and necessities like the $50 graduation fee and $100 for a cap and gown, to personal items like a nice dress or suit to wear underneath, there is already some financial burden students and families face.
Additionally, many students live out of state or plan on moving out of state and making the trip back to Atlanta may be difficult.
“I feel that people who really want a commencement and who really want to be acknowledged by walking across that stage will do anything to come back,” Mejia said.
However, this postponement revives her biggest fears.
With the unpredictability and no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, Mejia worries commencement will not be rescheduled until after her mother’s TPS is set to expire again in January 2021. Without another extension, she may not be able to see her daughter walk across the stage.
For Jennifer Lopez’s family, the loss was doubled: As she was preparing to graduate college, her younger brother was also preparing to graduate highschool. Because of the pandemic both of those milestones have diminished.
Lopez said her parents never finished school back in Mexico but they came to America and started their lives here because they knew there would be more opportunities.
“Commencement itself is like the ‘I made it’ moment. In that sense, it’s very tough not being able to walk,” she said. “It symbolizes all of the accomplishments you’ve made over the past four years, the sacrifices that your parents have made.”
Most of Lopez’s family lives in Mexico so her graduation wasn’t something they would have been able to attend had it not been canceled.
“I know a lot of people who probably had family who were planning on flying over here from Mexico. I don’t have any family that can do that,” she said.
But for the family members here, her friends and her supporters from church, the disappointment is real.
“People might see commencement as ‘Oh, it’s just another thing, you just walk across a stage,’” she said. “But for first-generation college students, it’s much more than that.”
Lopez is hoping that schools across the country will celebrate the class of 2020 in the future, just like Georgia State promised.
Both of Zamir Chowdhury’s parents immigrated to America from Bangladesh in 1990.
“When I first heard it was delayed, I was concerned that it wasn’t going to happen at all because I really want my parents to see me walk the stage and graduate because that was important for them,” Chowdhury said.
For Chowdhury, he didn’t really care about graduation when he entered college. But now, after he’s made it past these four years, he realizes how nice it would have been to have a ceremony.
Chowdhury plans on walking when commencement is rescheduled, especially since he said he spent about $250 on his cap and gown already.
“Given the situation out there, I don’t think [Georgia State] did anything wrong. It’s not unreasonable. It still sucks, but it is what it is,” he said.
He doesn’t believe that being a first-generation student makes a difference in the loss of graduation.
“I feel like it has a little bit more meaning for the student than for the parents because they’re the ones that went through the whole four years,” he said. “And maybe they would want to show it to their parents that they graduated regardless of whether they were immigrants or not.”