When Emily Mee applied to OU, she had to go to the public library a town over to get the internet access she needed.
Back then, the Slaughterville native didn’t know what terms like “weighted GPA” or “first generation” meant.
“I went in there completely blind — I didn’t have a guidance counselor or a high school counselor at my high school, so I navigated the whole process myself,” Mee said.
After years of hard work at OU, where she learned the ropes for herself as a first generation student, Mee may not get a graduation ceremony.
Last week, OU announced that due to precautions against COVID-19’s spread, classes would move online for the rest of the semester, and graduation ceremonies would be postponed. While ceremonies could be held virtually or late in the summer, OU’s class of 2020 won’t get the May graduation ceremonies that have sent off so many classes before them.
Many of 2020’s graduates are grieving over a lost semester, lost time with their friends, lost time on a campus they love. But for many first generation students — for whom college was never a guarantee, graduation has been a longtime family dream, or financial resources have been slim — losing graduation ceremonies has meant losing a moment when they could have celebrated how hard they’ve been working for years.
Javi Ramirez, an OU senior, is set to graduate wearing eight stoles and a cord this semester. His time at OU wasn’t just about his accomplishments or graduation accolades, he said, but he did want to be able to show his family how hard he had worked at college and how valuable his experience had been.
“I worked so hard through college and busted my ass to be able to get to this point….to be a part of these organizations and these programs, to attain all these stoles — not for purpose of attaining these stoles, but they just are a representation of all the things that I’ve done on campus to get to this point,” Ramirez said. “...All these different [stoles] represent things I’ve done at OU that, whenever I walked across that stage, my family would be able to see how much I’ve done… so they know that I really did this.”
Getting to college in the first place presented extra hurdles for many first generation students, many of whom — like Mee — didn’t have much guidance when it came to completing applications or receiving financial aid.
“Earning a college degree can be challenging in the best of situations, but many of our [first generation] students are dealing with additional barriers that make it even more difficult,” said Scott Cady, an advisor at OU’s Project Threshold, which works with first generation and underrepresented students. “A very high percentage of our students have to work, while balancing family responsibilities, academics, and other commitments, while making sure their GPAs, resumes, and everything else remains competitive for whatever that next step may be after graduation. A lot of our students also share financial responsibilities with their families, which means their time is quite frequently not their own.”
For some first generation students, the extra challenges have made the college experience isolating at times.
Mee and Ramirez said they struggled to figure out how to relate to their families as they navigated spaces and challenges their parents had no experience with, but they also struggled to keep up appearances at OU, where they felt like they needed to prove that they fit in.
“I felt like I was in a position where I couldn't tell [people at home] the truth — that I was struggling really hard, because I didn’t want to feel like an imposter in that way — and then I couldn’t reveal myself as an imposter to my peers at college because I didn’t feel like they were struggling in the same ways I was, and I was worried that they would see through me somehow and realize that I wasn’t actually supposed to be there,” Mee said.
Ramirez’ father’s education didn’t go past sixth grade, and his two siblings dropped out of high school during their senior years. But in some of the circles he found himself in at OU, Ramirez knew other students weren’t asking how they would be paying their rent that month or how they could handle their bursar payments.
“The biggest downside to all of this...is that it starts to create a barrier between you and your family to where you don’t feel like you belong there anymore because there’s no one else that went through that you did,” Ramirez said. “...But at the same time, you feel like a fraud at a university because you feel like you don’t belong there. I’ve gone through a lot of imposter syndrome at OU because I’ve struggled my whole way to figure out how I’m going to pay for everything, and how I’m going to be able to survive, and how I can put on a front to make it look like I’m not different from everyone else.”
Senior Carlos Rubio has dealt with the dual challenges of being a first generation student and an undocumented student. From his earliest moments at OU, Rubio was reminded that he wouldn’t have the same OU experience that students with a different citizenship status might have access to.
“When I was taking campus visits, I remember sitting down with the staff at the bursar’s office, and she sat down with me, and we were having a really transparent converstaion about what it meant to be an undocumented student at OU,” Rubio said. “She was really blunt in saying ‘there’s going to be opportunities that students at OU, specifically your peers, are going to be doing that you’re not going to be able to have access to.’”
After at least four years of paving the way in their families or dealing with questions their peers never had to ask, OU’s first generation students — along with thousands of other graduates — won’t get the ending that many of them wanted for this stage of their lives.
“For me, I’ve never been much of a big ‘pizzazz’ person who needs a big presentation or a big celebration and award for anything — that’s never been what I want — but there’s something about a graduation,” Rubio said. “I’ll never forget walking across the stage at my high school — I was the first one to graduate from high school in my family, and to see my parents at the other side of the arena — we technically won’t get to do that at Lloyd Noble this year. That’s very daunting, and it’s super heavy to think about.”
Graduation ceremonies aren’t just meaningful to students. Families have also been feeling the emotions of the last week.
“My mother’s been talking about my graduation since the day I was born,” said senior Destinee Dickson. “My mother’s been talking about my graduation this year since my first last day of school started….definitely my mother was very, very sad.”
Graduates and their families have been coping in their own ways. For some, the tears came quickly. For some, it took a moment for things to become real.
Cady said Project Threshold has been working to support students over the last week and let them know that “it's okay to feel what they feel, because it is certainly a devastating situation.”
“Being the first in your family to earn a degree is a huge accomplishment,” Cady said in an email. “It is such an amazing sense of pride, not just for the student, but for their entire families, as well. I understand why it's not a good idea to have a graduation ceremony at the moment, and I applaud everyone doing their best to comply with the necessary health precautions...however, my heart still hurts for the students who may not be able to experience graduation in all of its glory.”
Regardless of whether they ever receive an in-person ceremony, this year’s graduates plan to celebrate in their own ways.
Mee is taking graduation pictures at home, tying her accomplishments back to the place where it all started. Dickson said she hopes to eventually be able to gather with friends and family to celebrate. Rubio plans to have dinner with his family at a restaurant if possible by May. Ramirez, “in a typical Javi fashion,” still wants to live stream a celebration.
No matter how OU’s class of 2020 and first generation students are moving forward, the postponed ceremonies have left a sting.
“You put in all this work for three-and-a-half or four years — even though it’s a two-second walk across that stage, just to walk across that stage is a symbol of completing a chapter in your life, that you were able to accomplish something that thousands of people in this world will never be able to do,” Dickson said. “The sacrifices, the crying, the late nights in the Bizz, the late nights you put in for research — those two seconds symbolize you finished. I think not having the opportunity to have a proper ceremony means a lot to anyone, first generation or not, because you can never say that chapter actually closed for you.”