Opinion: The dream of commencement hangs in the balance for first-generation Hawkeyes amid COVID-19 concerns

First-generation students share worries over possibly missing out on commencement because of COVID-19 concerns.


Graphic by Katina Zentz

Marissa Payne, Editor-in-Chief

Commencement may not carry on as I had envisioned since I was a little girl.

I had always wanted to attend a large public university such as the University of Iowa, where campus was my world. My parents had always urged me to do well in school to open doors for a better future — one filled with opportunity and options to pursue my passions with a bachelor’s degree in hand.

After four years of hard work and memory-making, I expected I would top my college career off donning a cap and gown, walking across a stage propped up inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. My parents would watch from afar as I shook a UI official’s hand and received my diploma — an achievement they had never had the opportunity to pursue and a dream they long had for me. By having this moment, I would in some way make up for the opportunities they never accessed.

That moment I had always dreamt of and aspired to experience as a first-generation student may not unfold the way I imagined because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, the remainder of my senior year in college is uncertain. I will graduate amid (or hopefully after) a historic stock-market plunge as a journalism major — a field not exactly known for its job security.

Although The Daily Iowan will continue to publish regularly online and in print for now after spring break, the COVID-19 outbreak could force things to change at a moment’s notice.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the end of my senior year and one-fourth of my sole year as DI editor will not be what I pictured.

The UI is still exploring options and the Iowa Department of Public Health is not currently recommending canceling mass gatherings. There is no evidence at this time of community spread of COVID-19 in Iowa among the 16 positive cases.

There is still hope, but a dream moment hanging in the balance has certainly been a heart-sinking blow. With more than one-fourth of Hawkeyes being first-generation students, I’m not alone in that.

UI senior Alexia Sánchez, along with her sister Lilián, has advocated to raise awareness of what it means to be a first-generation student navigating higher education. She said it’s hard to entertain the reality of this long-imagined picture not coming alive.

“We picture it. We take the time to picture what this graduation day is going to look like, who’s going to be there … what I’m going to wear, how I’m doing my hair,” she said.

Sánchez said her family has been doing everything possible to attend, including her grandparents who live in Mexico. They would be disappointed for her and for themselves to not witness a commencement ceremony, she said.

“While the reality is that we have to be safe and our health is our priority, as a first-gen student it’s hard to balance which one you want more,” she said. “I think if anything, this should be a really great time for our university administrators and also our whole campus to maybe be creative in how we can still celebrate this huge milestone even with the concerns that we still have at the moment.”

UI senior Alexis Gore is a first-generation student and is among the first of her cousins to graduate.

Gore fears that if the UI’s in-person class suspension extends beyond two weeks after spring break and the semester abruptly ends, seniors will miss out on eight weeks of the college experience that they will never get back. Moments seniors imagine such as taking pictures on the Pentacrest in caps and gowns with their friends would be exchanged for being mailed a diploma.

“I don’t think you can remake a graduation,” she said. “That’s a day that you’ll never get back in your entire life.”

Something about that moment has always felt unattainable to me. It seemed too good to be true, and not to be too gloom-and-doom, but it felt like a moment that was never intended for me to experience.

Health and safety need to be a priority, no doubt, but hopefully the UI continues to give its graduating seniors — and especially those of us who are “the first” — extra consideration as this pandemic runs its course.

In time, I’ll redefine my college experience. For now, I’m mourning the possible loss of a defining moment that has always felt like a far-off dream, and which COVID-19 has proven may remain just that.

For more coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, click here.