For first-generation seniors, graduation is more than just a ceremony

First-generation seniors react to the university’s plans to delay May 2020 Commencement.

On March 10, Alejandra Galarce proudly bought her cap and gown. For the senior criminal justice and Spanish major, graduation would be more than a milestone. 

As a first-generation student, she hoped younger family members would be inspired to further their education after seeing her graduate from college. The occasion also meant recognizing her parents’ many sacrifices for her to do well in life.

But the next day, the university announced the suspension of in-person teaching, The Temple News reported. Galarce worried that soon, she would also lose the opportunity to be recognized for her accomplishments.

“The thought of never being able to wear [my cap and gown] on the Temple stage brought me to tears,” she said.

Galarce was relieved to find out she still has that chance. Last week, the university moved to postpone — not cancel — May 2020 Commencement, The Temple News reported.

While there are many definitions for a first-generation student, the term usually applies to students who are the first in their family to attend college, according to the Center for First Generation Student Success. The Center also found that only 20 percent of first-generation students attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering university. 

Typically, first-gen students have additional factors that inhibit their ability to succeed, particularly affording college, according to the United States Department of Education.

Jenna Redmond, a senior social work major, said paying for college was one of her biggest barriers to being the first in her family to receive a degree.

Redmond moved out of her parents’ home when she was 18. Her parents were unable to support her financially, and let her know they could not help her fund her college ambitions. So she joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to help fund her education. 

For Redmond, graduation was meant to be a celebration of her sacrifices and accomplishments.

“So many times in my life, I’ve had to say no to things to move towards the bigger picture,” she added. “Graduation was going to be, well, I guess it’s still going to be a moment where all the times I had to say ‘no’ were worth it.”

She’s glad her university commencement is only postponed because she would still like to be a part of the symbolic rite of passage.

“For me personally, the most important thing [in college] is when they hand you your diploma,” she said. “Once you have that in your hands, nobody can ever take that away from you. You put in this work, you paid this tuition bill money, you did this, and that will never ever, ever go away.”

Blake Laliberte, a senior communication and social influence major, also sees graduation as a symbol of finality and accomplishment. 

Growing up in rural South Central Virginia, she felt she didn’t fit in with her community’s beliefs and had a desire to live differently. For her, college was an opportunity to figure out her identity, and doing so has been one of the triumphs of her college journey.

“I’ve been able to get a better sense of individuality and sort of been able to fully be myself in a way that I couldn’t before I came to Temple,” Laliberte said. “I’ve gained so much more confidence and independence during my time here as well as strengthened my work ethic.”

That work ethic helped Laliberte maintain her academic scholarship throughout her four years at Temple. Developing it came out of necessity — her parents, who she usually turned to for guidance, couldn’t help her navigate college academics because they hadn’t attended college themselves.

But when she was growing up, her parents were the ones who had pushed her to work toward college. Now, she and her sister have become the first in their family to receive higher education.

Jenna Garcia, a senior media productions and studies major, was also sharing this accomplishment with family.

While she will be the first in her family to graduate college, she was sharing this time with her nieces: her youngest niece is set to graduate 5th grade and move on to middle school, while her other niece, her “mini-me,” is graduating 8th grade and moving on to high school.

Garcia has taken time to process that this celebration will be postponed, as well as the goodbyes she didn’t get to have and the abrupt end to her senior year. She now sees this time as another life lesson she’s learned from her college experience.

“It’s taught me, I guess, just how much the human can really go through because, I mean, I’m still going to be here [in school],” she said. “I’m not going to give up. I’ve worked so hard for so long.”

Garcia also feels persevering through this time will be essential for all graduates because it gives them a chance to prove their “grit” as a potential employee and a person. 

“When people are hiring and hopefully, everything’s good again, you can be like, this was my setback, I was graduating during this, and this is all of the work that I produced in the meantime, and how I built myself up for this moment,” she said. 

Kamina Richardson, assistant program director of the legal studies department, has been working with students who are concerned about life after college during such unprecedented times.

She’s also working on how to celebrate graduating students when it’s safe to do so.

Richardson understands that graduation is especially significant to first-gens. After all, she was one. She postponed college to raise her daughter and work before deciding she wanted to pursue a degree. 

For Richardson, the transition from survival mode and caring for family to entering the unfamiliar world of academia was jarring.

“I know when I started my first undergraduate class, I felt like I was so far away from what they were teaching that I was like, okay I feel like a baby,” she said. “Then to actually grow with those courses and then to finally graduate to a level where I have a better understanding of me and how the world works, that’s a huge accomplishment. That’s a milestone. So I definitely get it, it is something precious.”

This understanding has led Richardson to push for graduation and celebrations for seniors.

“I know this is not our fault, it’s just things that happen, this is just the way the world works, but we have a responsibility to the Class of 2020 to make it impactful and make it something where they still feel special,” she said. “We appreciate you, and we want to celebrate you.”

1 Comment

  1. So proud of and happy for our granddaughter, Blake Laliberte, who has studied and lived so many miles away from her home town and family. She puts her studies above everything and is such a dedicated student.

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