Graduation is one of the most public displays of accomplishment that could happen in a young person’s life. It’s marked with ceremonies, parties, gifts, photos and endless momentos. Those magical moments of hearing your name called and receiving your diploma are unforgettable in the United States, especially for Latinas — and not only because we’re one step closer to achieving the “American Dream.” Whether receiving a bachelor’s degree or completing a trade school / certificate program, there are so many difficulties on this journey, making commencement day a special kind of feat.
But in May, when I graduated from Rutgers University, I learned that this day wasn’t as meaningful to others. I knew many people who skipped commencement activities, citing it as “no big deal,” or generally downplaying their accomplishment altogether. This shouldn’t have surprised me. Throughout college, I witnessed peers disrespecting instructors, purposely doing the bare minimum to pass or simply making it known how much they didn’t care about their education. I knew that much of that behavior was likely rooted in identity privileges that I didn’t possess.
For Latinx students pursuing higher education, graduation is a very important part of a lifelong journey of validating the struggle of our parents, many of them immigrants. We share a collective consciousness of being the “other” in academic spaces. This feeling of “otherness” is only amplified by more distinctions, such as race, gender, class and sexual orientation. The emotional and cultural weight this puts on Latinx students seems like it’s enough of a burden but, systematically, we face many more roadblocks in our academic lives than our white peers.
(Courtesy of Kim Hoyos)
A 2017 study by Georgetown University titled “Latino Education and Economic Progress: Running Faster but Still Behind” breaks down the alarming truths behind higher education for Latinx students. According to the report, though more than 80 percent of Latinos believe that degrees equate to financial security, there’s a disconnect between that and what’s happening around us. In 1992, for instance, just 35 percent of Latinx students attained a postsecondary degree, which increased to 45 percent in 2016. This jump sounds promising, but the 2016 statistic for non-Latinx white students, 74 percent, and African American students, 66 percent, show there’s a distinct divide.
Latinx students are finishing high school at higher rates than in the past, and even excelling there with more than 125,000 students a year scoring in the top half of college admissions exams. Yet, when they get to college, these students are not on par to even finish school at the same rates as white students due to the institutions they attend as well as a slew of academic and racial disparities they face early in their educational journey. Latinx students often enroll in open-access schools, which include public four-year colleges that admit at least 80 percent of applicants. At these institutions, students don’t usually receive much-needed support to due to overcrowding. This fact, paired with family financial situations and various cultural factors, are a disastrous cocktail that leads to Latinx students dropping out. In fact, Latinxs, who have one of the lowest rates of college completion, have just a 36 percent graduation rate at broad-access schools compared to 68 percent at more selective institutions.
These low college completion rates directly affect them in the 21st century job market that increasingly pushes for a bachelor’s degree and already pays Latinx workers lower wages.
This is why I made a really big deal about graduating. I decorated my cap in Spanish, dedicating the day to honor my parents and my roots. My mother and father immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia in the ‘80s and, growing up, I absorbed their work ethic without question. They made it very clear that they expected my brother and me to go to college. At a young age, I knew that they were spreading themselves thin in order to guarantee their children had choices in the future.
For myself, the goal of going to college felt insurmountable, but after witnessing my brother graduate, I saw it wasn’t impossible. I remember the first day I moved into my first dorm room, dragging a mattress pad in and taping music posters to my walls. I thought I had made it because I was accepted and enrolled. I thought I was guaranteed graduation because of all my high school AP classes, honors placement and extra curriculars. But I soon learned that getting into school is the first struggle to what seems like an endless marathon for Latinx students.
(Courtesy of Kim Hoyos)
Through eight media internships, various film projects, freelance writing and founding an online company, I pushed myself every day of those four years to succeed. My accomplishments are not surprising when Latina women have historically utilized education to combat the class, gender and racial disadvantages they face. I don’t know where I would be without my parents’ voices in my head saying, “Mija, haglo bien y ponga las pilas.”
With all of this in mind, I wanted my identity to be at the forefront of my graduation. I see my identity as a reason to celebrate every inch of progress I make. And now, looking at graduation rates across the country, I see that every Latinx grad should be discussing their identity. Finding success in a system that has disadvantaged others like you is bittersweet, but it’s still a merit to be proud of because its pushing the needle toward a more equal future. We did it, despite everything stacked up against us, and we should be proud of that.