Graduating Was Just the First Step

I finally did it… I graduated college. It’s been about two months and I still haven’t felt that sense of accomplishment I’m supposed to feel (according to everyone). I tried so hard, but there is nothing. In a way I feel relieved about not attending school and having to socialize with people. Specially, when I have to sit listening to everyone talk about their extravagant summer vacation. I would never be able to afford any part of it. Yes, I came from a private pre-dominantly white university, where more than half of the student population comes from a very privileged background. I pretty much didn’t have a choice to attend, my mom is part of the cleaning staff on campus, and the school covers full tuition for staff members, and children/spouses of staff members. They offered the major I was interested in, so it was a pretty easy choice, when other university financial aid packages were not comparable. This doesn’t mean I don’t have loans. I do. I transferred in sophomore year from a public UC institution, where I was also studying engineering. It just means I have minimal loans. Anyways, I just get tired of people being so fake, including myself. No, I am not interested in what you did this summer. Please don’t tell me that you want to catch up during lunch, because we all know you’re just saying that. You will never try to schedule lunch with me. (Hahaha) I guess I sound a little bit like a loner, but I had a couple of very close friends, who I would be more than happy to see. I just didn’t want to put up with everyone else when their intentions weren’t real.

You know I always pictured my graduation differently. I thought that the moment I walked the stage I was going to tear up. That everyone would see my name on the jumbo-tron, with “School of Engineering written right under it. It never happened, only my name was shown. I was one of two Latinas, and one of six females graduating as an engineer from my department that summer, and I was so proud to be a woman of color with a STEM degree. I continued to picture that after the ceremony, I was going to meet up with my professors, who have always been there for me. I would hug them really hard as I cried in their arms and they would say something like, “You finally did it, you made it.” As you may have guessed, it didn’t happen that way. This is what really went down. I spent almost the entire ceremony sleeping, because I had only four hours of sleep the previous night. My feet were killing me! So I went ahead and took off my wedges as the speeches were given and awards were handed out. I hate dirty feet, but I sacrificed that hatred and allowed my toes to breathe and rest for a little.

“I was one of two Latinas, and one of six females graduating as an engineer from my department that summer, and I was so proud to be a woman of color with a STEM degree.”

When diplomas were being handed out, I was nervous about tripping on my way to the stage, because my legs were shaking from my feet hurting so much. After the ceremony, I briefly took pictures with one of my favorite professors and then I went home… I couldn’t find my other professor after searching for about an hour…I guess she had gone home. That was it. I got home changed into some leggings and a sweater as people started to come over for a small family celebration.

So I thought, that was it. This was supposed to be a HUGE day for me and my family… and I didn’t really feel like I accomplished anything… to lightly put it into perspective, I had studied for 5 years, been to two different universities, and probably slept about 3-4 hours every night trying to get my engineering degree and that was it. That is what I felt, nothing… However, it wasn’t until I started talking to an older cousin at the celebration that I guess that sense of accomplishment started settling in.

“That is what I felt, nothing…”

He was sitting by himself on my dining room table when I decided to join him.

Me: “Where’s your wife?”

Cousin: “She couldn’t come, she had work.”

Me: “Is it that or is it because she doesn’t like [my older sister].”

Cousin: (Laughs) “It’s both.”

Me: “It’s okay, I don’t mind either way.”

Cousin: “So… you finally graduated…”

Me: “Yeah, you know I really wished mi Tia Irene would have been here. She always wanted to see me graduate. Can you believe it’s been five years [since her death]?”

Cousins: “No! Really?… Oh wait… it’s has been that long… dddaaannnnmmmm. I thought it had been like three years.”

Me:”No, it’s been five. She died about a month before I graduated high school.”

Cousin: “But you know, you did something that [none of the other cousins] in the family from your dad’s side have done. You graduated, you made it…. I tried a long time ago. I was studying to be an engineer at CSU Northridge, but then I got [my wife] pregnant. So… I quit, because I had to take care of her. Look at [your other cousins], they barely finished high school, got their girlfriends pregnant, and still live at home. You made something of yourself. So from your dad’s side of the family, I AM PROUD. YOU SHOULD BE PROUD.”

Me: “Well… thank you. But I don’t feel different.”

Cousin: “Well, going to college is hard to begin with. Specially when you are first-generation and your parents don’t understand what college is. You got yourself into college and you got yourself out. I never blame my parents for anything, for not supporting me, because only I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up to study engineering. My parents didn’t know or understand anything. They just knew that I was going to be better off than they are if I had finished, but I didn’t. I got myself out too early, but you did… you finished. So be proud.You did something today.”

Soon after our conversation finished. I headed outside to grab a plate of food. I was famished, but definitely felt better about myself and what I had accomplished that day.

This was the first time I had a heart-felt conversation with him. I’m not going to lie it was weird, but it was the first time I actually felt something… his words were ingrained in my head, “You got yourself into college and you got yourself out.” He was right, my parents never understood what college was or what it meant to be a college student… the highest level of education they had received was up to the 6th grade, because they had to work to provide for their families… they couldn’t afford proper clothes, shoes, school supplies, or food sometimes. THEY gave me this amazing opportunity… to be here, in the US. The opportunity to obtain an education, to better myself, to better my future, to pursue my dreams, my goals, my aspirations. I was here because of them. They made everything possible for me, and I only wish I could give them the world…. my mom always told me, “I don’t have money, but I at least gave you an education.”, and I am grateful for that every single day of my life. So please, if you have the opportunity to go to school and/or follow your dreams, DO IT. Don’t take it for granted… because there are other people who don’t have this luxury.

“They made everything possible for me, and I only wish I could give them the world….”

There isn’t a day that goes by that I have not felt privileged to be in the position that I am in. Therefore, I will continue to serve as a mentor. I will continue to motivate under-represented students of color to pursue and finish their STEM degrees. I will stand by them and tell them that they can do it. That it is possible.

On the other hand, I want to go back to school. I want to continue my education and get a Masters. I’m still trying to figure out a couple of details, but definitely I want to get my Ph.D. and for now I am enjoying that sense of accomplishment.

(The picture above is not of my graduating cap, but of a friend’s.)

 

 

 

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