More than just a ceremony: First-generation Latinx students demand in-person graduation


Jakob Emerson | The DePaulia

Graduates joined in celebration with their family after three years of rigorous academic study.

A commencement ceremony is more than a graduation for first-generation Latinx college students inspiring the next generation.

First generation Latinx students won’t get the chance to turn their tassel and wear their royal blue cap and gown in a packed arena after DePaul University announced they are planning a “series of virtual ceremonies.” On Friday, the university sent an email cancelling all in-person commencement ceremonies in May and June due to COVID-19.

Hilda Onate, 44, who was the first in her family to receive her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and will be the first to complete her MBA at the program of business and administration at DePaul, said replacing the in-person commencement ceremony with a virtual ceremony is the institution taking away her finish line. 

“For minorities it means a lot to cross the finish line, the graduation stage, and a lot of us are doing it to show other generations, our family, our children, our friends, that if I did it, you can do it too,” Onate said. 

Onate, who is a wife and mother of three, said completing her MBA has been on her bucket list and walking across the stage signifies not only the closing of a chapter, but also a moment showing she has made it. 

“The most rewarding part is that you get to share it with your family, because your family has heard about your struggles,” Onate said. “I want to show [my kids]  that if you dream it, you can make it reality and if you work hard you will succeed. As a Latina we need more role models and it’s really important to show them that mommy wasn’t there Tuesday and Thursday because she was going to school, and look mommy graduated, she went on stage and got her diploma.”

Public relations and advertising student Marilou Terrones, 25, is the youngest in her family and the only one to attend college. Like Onate, Terrones was looking forward to sharing her academic accomplishment with her family, as her education has always been important to her growing up. 

“My parents always raised me with the mentality that the only way you can overcome anything is through your education,” Terrones said. “I remember them saying, ‘Maybe we’re not rich, maybe we can’t give you this, but we are going to be able to give you the opportunity to go to college and graduate, and educate yourself because that is the only way you can become and overcome those barriers.’”

Terrones said the simple act of crossing the stage and receiving her diploma serves as a statement that it doesn’t matter where she comes from or what her background is; she’s able to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to. 

“I have nieces who are little and are looking up to me. I’m disappointed because I was going to give them that opportunity, so they can see that they can do it, too, no matter where you come from or what your background is,” Terrones said. 

Terrones said she wishes DePaul will consider other opportunities or postpone the in-person commencement ceremony before settling on a virtual alternative. 

“I was disappointed because DePaul does a really good job in reaching out to their students making sure their student body is okay and making sure they provide the right resources for them to be successful, so I was disappointed when they said we are just going to have something virtual,” Terrones said.  

Terrones is not the only feeling saddened by the decision of the university. Onate said the institution should have considered the voices of its students.

“I feel let down, disappointed, angry and surprised. I don’t understand why they made this decision  without asking Depaul students for their input. It just seems very one-sided,” Onate said. 

DePaul’s graduating class of 2020 is asking the university to postpone their ceremony for a later time during the year. 

A petition demanding the commencement ceremony to be postponed in person was created in receiving over 6,500 signatures. A “Let’s get it postponed!” Facebook group was also created by a DePaul student in effort to raise awareness. 

We understand the disappointment being felt throughout the DePaul community over the decision not to hold traditional in-person commencement ceremonies this spring,” DePaul spokesperson Carol Hughes told La DePaulia in an email. “Please know we made this decision with heavy hearts. We weighed the option of postponement to the fall and recognized the difficulty in being able to plan in this time of such uncertainty. That’s why, in these extraordinary circumstances, we chose to immediately begin planning for a series of virtual ceremonies for this spring and look for other ways to honor all our graduates. Our intent is to create the best commencement experience possible to recognize and celebrate our graduates. We will announce plans as they are finalized on the Commencement 2020 Updates website.”

Institutions like Loyola University postponed their in-person graduation ceremony to August after originally scheduling it for May, while the University of Illinois suspended its in-person May graduation on all campuses and is “exploring possible alternatives.”

First-generation DePaul graduate Yoly Valencia would have liked for the university to reach out to its students and ask for their thoughts before making an ultimate decision.

A daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, Valencia said her background at times dismisses the importance of higher education, and crossing the graduation stage meant otherwise.

“My whole life I’ve been fighting to break stereotypes and for me this was going to be one way to start breaking those stereotypes and show our community that there is something good for us here and we too can be part of it,” she said.