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First-Generation College Graduates Now Face Not Being Able To Walk Across Stage


Across the country, college graduation ceremonies are canceled or postponed. This was the day, the ceremony that motivated so many students during their most difficult hours in school. But this loss of public acknowledgement is now taking an emotional toll on students and on their families. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It was a pretty normal night. Nathan Stewart and a couple friends were hanging out, soaking up senior spring at the University of Virginia. Then an email landed in their inboxes. Classes were moving online, and graduation was indefinitely postponed.

NATHAN STEWART: Honestly, my friends and I just immediately started crying.

NADWORNY: Nathan's parents didn't go to college. And throughout his four years at UVA, graduation had been a major motivator.

STEWART: Whenever any of us were just having a rough day, we were like, oh, guys, wait. Just hold out. Wait till graduation day when we're all walking across the stage together and we get our diploma. It'll be so worth it then.

NADWORNY: And now, there's just not that much to look forward to.

STEWART: You can't place your anger or sorrow on anybody 'cause nobody knows what they're doing.

SARAH MENDEZ: Oh, I was so heartbroken.

NADWORNY: Sandra Mendez is set to graduate from Trinity Washington University in the nation's capital.

MENDEZ: Like, I have been waiting for these days since I was little, right?

NADWORNY: For Sandra, graduating from college wasn't always a sure thing. After high school, she took some time off. Then she went to college in Wisconsin. After two years, she moved back home.

MENDEZ: And I was going to give up on school altogether just 'cause it was way expensive.

NADWORNY: But then she got a scholarship that sent her to Trinity three years ago. And in about a month, she'll have enough credits to graduate with a degree in biology.

MENDEZ: I feel like I've been always trying to prove myself to my family. Like, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do this.

NADWORNY: Sandra's school, like many around the country, understand how special this is. Trinity Washington said they're looking for a date in June to reschedule an in-person ceremony. Many schools, like Harvard and Miami University, have scheduled virtual graduations. At California State University in Los Angeles, they've canceled commencement outright. Administrators there say they're working to find other ways to acknowledge the hard work of graduates.

Monica Ferrufino is getting a bachelor's from Cal State LA. She says the ceremony - it wasn't for her. It was going to be for her parents.

MONICA FERRUFINO: When they canceled graduation, it was exactly 60 days prior to our scheduled commencement.

NADWORNY: She knows this because her mother and father kept track.

FERRUFINO: So my parents have been counting down. You know, my parents have, like, a little calendar. They'd be crossing out days because they were just so excited for that.

NADWORNY: When she told them the news that graduation had been canceled, her mom cried.

FERRUFINO: My parents didn't get to finish high school. So for them to see, like, their daughter graduating college was just far beyond their dreams.

NADWORNY: For Alexandrea Mares, who attends Cal State Northridge, she says she's kind of relieved. She was raised by her grandparents, and her main focus right now is keeping herself and her family healthy.

ALEXANDREA MARES: You know what? My health and their health is what matters most. I'm going to get the degree either way at the end of the semester.

NADWORNY: That's not to say she isn't extremely proud of her six-year journey.

MARES: I'm still excited. Even though we're not having a graduation, I'm still excited to get my diploma in the mail.

NADWORNY: As for the celebrating, she's planning on having a party inside with just her and her grandparents because, she says, they're the ones who really matter.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.