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OU amid coronavirus: First-generation graduating seniors reflect on meaning of accomplishment amid rescheduling of ceremony

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Liz Williams

Liz Williams poses for her senior portrait. Williams is a first-generation college student who is excited to graduate in-person at OU's rescheduled ceremony this August.

Liz Williams said she has been in tears since OU rescheduled its 2020 graduation ceremony. 

Williams is a public relations senior and the first in her family to attend college. When OU and other universities across the country canceled and postponed graduation ceremonies in response to the spread of COVID-19, Williams said she was still holding out hope for an in-person graduation. 

On April 2, OU announced plans for a virtual commencement ceremony in May and an in-person graduation for the class of 2020 on Aug. 8 and 9. After hearing about the alternative celebrations, Willams said she couldn’t contain her excitement. 

“If graduation was outright canceled, I would be devastated,” Williams said. “My parents have given me everything and they deserve to see me graduate in person.”

Williams said her parents were not given the opportunity to go to college themselves: her father worked at Tinker Air Force Base as an aircraft mechanic and her mother held down two jobs, a human resources assistant in a hospital and at a bookstore on the weekends, to make sure Williams made it through school. 

“That's the driving motivation. I wanted to (graduate). I knew that it would make them proud,” Williams said. 

Williams attended high school in Jones, Oklahoma, a small town with a population of around 3,000, where she said not many locals go to college because it isn’t viewed as a necessity.

In addition to overcoming the small-town stereotype, Williams said she faced degrading comments from educators. 

“I was told by a teacher when I was in high school, ‘I’d really be surprised if you ended up graduating college,’” Williams said. 

Through every push-back, Williams said she pushed harder, determined to build the future she and her family worked so hard for.

For some first-generation students, graduation is more than a celebration of their accomplishments. Biology senior Karina Flores said she hopes her graduation inspires others in her family. She wants to set an example for her younger sister, 2, and brother, 11.

“I want to be that person I would want to have,” Flores said.

For Flores, she said it was difficult to learn the ins and outs of college, like building a foundation for her future career, but OU offered her the most help in overcoming this struggle.

“OU had the opportunities, the resources and family to be able to really help me grow,” Flores said. 

Other than financial barriers, Flores said her biggest pitfall was negative self-talk.

“I would say, ‘Maybe I’m not meant for this because I don't have that support,’ but, in reality, there were so many people at OU willing to help me,” Flores said.

Flores was part of Latinos Without Borders while she was still in high school and currently serves on the executive board of OU’s chapter, she said. The program is a one-day conference and three-day summer institute that aims to raise high school Latinxs’ awareness of the importance of higher education and self-empowerment, according to the OU website.

Latinos Without Borders also helped Javi Ramirez, a human relations and women and gender studies senior, who said coming from a low-income immigrant family made the idea of attending college seem daunting.

“Academia is a very isolating field to go into when you come from my kind of background,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said his graduation represents the end of an era for his family.

“My graduation is for my grandmother, who has no idea what I am doing, but is still proud of me,” Ramirez said. “(It’s) for my parents who were never given the opportunity to graduate themselves, not even from high school ... It’s for all of the younger kids in my family and community.”

An OU spokesperson said the university is excited to welcome the Class of 2020 back to campus for the in-person graduation ceremonies in August.

“The university is immensely proud of all of its graduating students, and in particular, of the determination and resolve of our first-generation graduates ... Though it is imperfect, and we wish we could be together, we are excited to celebrate all of our graduates,” said Kesha Keith, the OU director of media relations.

While Williams was thrilled with the ability to attend a graduation ceremony in August, Flores and Ramirez said they have reservations. 

Flores said she was looking forward to her grandmother watching her graduate, but she plans to move to New York in July to pursue a doctorate in microbiology at New York University and will be unable to attend OU’s postponed ceremony. 

While Ramirez said he appreciates OU’s effort to provide a graduation ceremony, but is unsure if he will be able to attend because he is also entering graduate school at Ohio State University in the fall.

“I’m coming to terms with it,” Ramirez said. “I don’t want to hold on to the bitterness of not crossing the stage in light of everything happening globally.”

Flores said reflecting on what she has gained throughout her college career is helping her cope with the loss. She said although the change is difficult to accept, it doesn’t lessen her accomplishment. 

“(It proves) I can fight back the statistics of coming from a single mother household and the stereotype of Latinas in college,” Flores said.

Flores said for her, graduation represents all of the hard work she has put into her degree. 

“Although I can’t have my family and friends physically together to celebrate, I know they are super proud of me,” Flores said.

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