Universities across the U.S. canceled or postponed their 2020 graduation ceremonies. For first-generation graduates, or students who are the first in their immediate family to graduate college, this loss was significant.
At the University of Richmond, there are just under 90 first-generation seniors, said Lisa Miles, the associate director of Common Ground and the coordinator of first-gen student support.
First-gen UR students are called Spider Firsts, Miles said. There is programming put in place to aid those students throughout their college career, she said.
Jay Do, a first-gen senior, said that going to college had been all his family talked about while he had been in high school.
When UR first announced in an email on March 16 the cancellation of the May graduation commencement ceremony for the class of 2020, no decisions had been made on a make-up ceremony.
Do said that he did not care whether or not there was a ceremony at first, but once he realized he may not be able to see his classmates one last time, he had become upset.
Anisha Patel, a first-gen senior, said that going to college was something she had worked toward her entire life.
“This is something that I’ve always worked for and my family and I wanted to celebrate,” Patel said. “But I understand that these are hard times so I’ve learned to accept it.
“There will always be another time to celebrate my accomplishments, I just want the people around me to be in a safe environment when we do celebrate.”
In a May 1 email to the class of 2020, UR President Ronald A. Crutcher wrote that there would be an on-campus graduation ceremony at a later date and that students would receive more information about it in June.
Patel thought that UR should assist students with the travel costs of getting back to campus for the ceremony.
Jacob Norton, a first-gen senior, said it was important for his mom to see him walk across the stage and get his diploma, he said.
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"My mom cried when she first realized that graduation was canceled," he said.
In the past two years, there has been a cording ceremony for first-gen graduates, Miles said. During the ceremony, students are given roses and silver cords to be worn with their cap and gown during commencement, she said.
“The cords are just visible, recognizable symbols that you are the first in your family to graduate and that you overcame some hurdles likely that other students didn’t have to,” Miles said.
Erika Nguyen, first-gen senior, said she looked forward to the cording ceremony.
“Being recognized for the work we've done not only as undergrads but as those who are first to receive a degree in our family lineage is deeply impactful,” she said.
Miles plans on conducting the ceremony over Zoom on May 4. She will mail cords to first-gen students who request one and want to be in the virtual event, she said.
Students will be able to share a few words about their experiences, and staff and faculty members can make statements congratulating students for their hard work, Miles said.
Miles will combine clips of the past cord ceremonies as well as videos of every “Spider Firsts” event that the 2020 class has been a part of to make a video for the ceremony, she said.
Miles is upset that 2020 first-gens will be missing their graduation, but she hopes that the virtual ceremony will help them realize how much they have accomplished, she said.
“[Attending college] doesn’t just change your own life, it tends to change the entire trajectory of your family’s life,” Miles said. “Whether it’s your younger siblings or younger cousins, suddenly the doors open and one way or another you’re going to pay it forward.”
Contact contributor Jada Frazier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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