COVID-19 Stole Our Special Day: For First-Gen Students, Graduation Was for their Families

Updated: May 19, 2020

The world is currently facing a crisis that will go down in history. For the last few months, we've been living in a state of fear and uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic expands across the world. To help prevent the spread of the virus, schools of all levels have shut down and colleges have begun to cancel major events.

Graduating college seniors have probably spent the last few weeks receiving bad news after bad news. The celebration of everything they've worked towards has been postponed or even canceled.

This is a milestone worthy of being recognized.

As we grieve the days we lost, the birthdays we wish could celebrate, and yearn for some sense of normalcy, college graduates try to find meaning behind their loss. We spoke with four first-generation Latinx college graduates who share how they feel about COVID-19 affecting their big day. They help to remind us, that we are not alone during this difficult time.

Here’s what they had to say:

Desiree Rios, 2020, Loyola Marymount University, Master of Arts in Educational Psychology explains how she felt about finding out her graduation was being canceled due to the virus.

“It’s interesting actually, I went through several stages of grief over my commencement ceremony. I was initially in denial that the pandemic would have the power to rob hundreds of thousands of graduates of this momentous celebration in their lives. I then felt angry and sad, not for myself as much as my grandparents. My grandfather is elderly and very sick; knowing this, I really hoped and prayed that he would still be with us for this joyous celebration, especially because he has been such an avid supporter throughout my academic career. And although my prayers were answered, the celebrations have been ripped from underneath our feet.”

Valentin Avila, a graduating senior at the University of Southern California is receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Law says how disappointed he was that COVID-19 ripped away a big part of his long-awaited dream.

“I was initially upset when stories first started surfacing on social media that our graduation could potentially be postponed. We had heard stories of neighboring universities deciding to cancel their commencement ceremonies and we had not heard anything from our own administration advising us what the next steps would be. But once everything had settled, I was more so disappointed. For many of us, graduation isn’t just a celebration of our own four years of hard work and sacrifice; it’s also been our parents’ years of sacrifice. I’m mostly disappointed because they’ve put me through years of schooling for me to finally be able to repay them with this culminating moment. While I am eternally grateful that my school has chosen to simply postpone the ceremony, it’s still a bittersweet feeling. There were a number of events and celebrations prior to graduation that I wanted to make my parents a part of. As they never had the privilege to attend school, let alone college, it’s our first experience at such a campus. And I’ve aimed at trying to make them a part of every step because as uncomfortable as it can be for them, just as it is for myself from time to time, I want me and my family to take up that space unapologetically because we worked hard to be there.”

Ilene Jocelyn Uriarte, 2020, Loyola Marymount University, Masters in Educational Psychology says that breaking the news to her parents was not easy.

“Explaining to my family why my Latino/a graduation was canceled, was difficult. My mother had been looking forward to this moment for a long time. As I previously mentioned, although I will have the opportunity next year to walk on stage, I have missed out on being able to let my family experience a smaller, intimate graduation that honors who we are as a family, nuestra cultura, y nuestra prescencia. They were sad, but like always they are my backbone and they always find the smallest of light during these unprecedented times.”

Kimberly Silverio-Bautista, another graduating senior from California State University Northridge is obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in both Journalism with a minor in Spanish Language Journalism and Chicana and Chicano Studies. Silverio-Bautista says her mother is sad she won’t see her walk across the stage.

“My mom is saddened by the fact that students who worked hard for the specific day, we won't be able to get that moment or enjoy with the family. She feels that it’s not fair because we’ve worked so hard to walk that stage. She feels that it isn’t fair that we don't have a graduation for all our hard work. If she even had the opportunity to vote, she’d be willing to vote and support the graduating class 2020 to have a ceremony. My mother and father have been looking forward to seeing me walk that stage, hear my full name be read, and get that degree.”

In the midst of the pandemic, Desiree Rios mentions she wasn’t sure how she would tell her mother about her big graduate school day.

“I didn’t initially tell them, my mom just kept asking and I found ways to put it off until recently, she asked, and I told her that it was being postponed for a far later date. Both of my parents were really upset as they both were excited for OUR graduation because we know these accomplishments are a community effort. My mom being the resourceful Mexican woman that lives life with a “work with what you got” outlook, began to think of alternative ways to celebrate the occasion.”

Melissa Retana, a Los Angeles Mission College graduate with a Social and Behavior Sciences and Child Development degree says despite COVID-19, she is reminded about what life has to offer.

“If I’m taking anything away from this situation, it is just simply that I am being reminded not to take anything for granted. Even if it’s things that I sometimes find myself complaining about. We’re so caught up in our everyday busy schedules that we’re constantly just living in a cycle that we truly don’t appreciate enough. Yes, a small break might have been good for some of us, but it’s the non-materialistic things that I truly miss; seeing the students I work with every day, my in-class meetings, my loved ones. We have witnessed how just one day to another everything can drastically change, and we no longer get to experience these things so it’s important just to sometimes take a step back and appreciate what we get to do in our everyday lives.”

Nonetheless, despite the unexpected circumstances Class of 2020 is facing due to the COVID-19, these first-generation college graduates are filled with hope, dreams, and aspirations for the future.

Kimberly Silverio-Bautista says that if there’s anything she’s taking away from this situation is to enjoy her college year at its fullest.

“These moments will never come back. The reason why I am saying this is because I already envisioned how I wanted to finish my last months of being an undergrad student. I envisioned it celebrating, hanging out, going to bailes (dances), and just enjoying each other's presence before departing to our ways. Like I said we will never get to experience this again. Also, to enjoy life and be fully present in the moment. Life can change with a blink of an eye and for the better or for the worse. Ever since COVID-19 happened, it made me realize to appreciate those around and let them know how much they mean to me. The overall situation of the pandemic made me think about a Mexican saying that says “Quieres hacer reir a dios, cuentale tus planes.” I had things planned out, but God already had things planned out for us lol.”

Valentin Avila understands there’s a lot to be said, for all students affected by the virus, but especially the Class of 2020.

“Not only are we dealing with unprecedented times and are expected to function as if everything were normal while we’re far from that. However, while things have taken several turns for the worst, what I’ve personally found is how quickly marginalized communities have stepped forward to pave the way. Almost immediately after the stay-at-home order was in effect, local communities at my university began creating a mutual spreadsheet filled with resources for students most at need. The grand take away is that there will always be some light of positivity in the darkest moments which will either arise through the heartfelt gesture of one person to another or by mutual assurance.”

Ilene Jocelyn Uriarte says this situation has taught her that she can’t control everything in her life.

“In the moment it is hard to see the “positives” in a situation that has brought a multitude of emotions for many people and their unique circumstances, but even through those tough moments, I want to let the Class of 2020 know that it is okay to grieve. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions and know that your life does not stop here. This will add a tiger stripe to your courage and resiliency. Don’t stop now, there’s so much more you will accomplish with this as experience behind your back! Hechale ganas, ten fe!”

Class of 2020, you are worthy of every milestone and accolade you've worked for. People are rooting for you. And we are so, so proud of you! It’s important to remember that even though you may not be walking across a stage on graduation day, your hard work and accomplishments still deserve to be recognized. Class of 2020, the world waits for you. Go get them!

Meet The Family

Lupe LLerenas is a Latinx woman of color and daughter of immigrants. She is a bilingual host, entertainment journalist, and media personality. The Los Angeles native earned her degree in Broadcast Journalism and Gender Women Studies from California State University Northridge. Lupe’s versatility in the entertainment industry has allowed her to work for outlets such as REAL 92.3 LA, BET, HipHopDX, REVOLT TV, Home Grown Radio,, and more.