Graduation is one of the most important ceremonies that a student can have. It is not only a celebration, but it is the closure of one stage and the beginning of a new one. However, this year COVID-19 has changed that for us students.
There will be no graduations, no caps thrown in the air and no family gatherings to celebrate such an important part of life. I am a first generation, Latina and a proud daughter of immigrant parents. Growing up, I remember having conversations with my abuelita, my grandmother, that consisted of empowerment and lucha, fight, for our dreams and our goals. My abuelita used to talk about when she was a little girl in Mexico, her mother took her out of school and did not allow her to go back. She said that she would tell her, “solo van a la escuela a escribirle cartas al novio”, “[you] only go to school to write letters to your boyfriend.” Abuelita would say, “que tontería la de mi mamá”, “my mom and her nonsense.” My grandmother had lived a tough life. Her first husband was killed and she was left with four kids. She got remarried with my grandfather and had four more kids with him, my mom is the youngest. She saw how her oldest daughter and granddaughters married and had kids like herself. My mom’s sister got together with her boyfriend and a couple of years later my mom got married, the first one to walk out of the house in a white dress. My abuelita’s most prideful moment.
I think my abuelita eventually got tired of seeing the same patterns and being the oldest granddaughter from my grandfather’s side, she would say, “estudia hija, ve a la escuela y educate para que nunca dependas de un hombre,” “study dear, go to school and educate yourself so that you never depend on a man.” Those words striked me deep like bullets and I took them incredibly to heart. From that day on, I decided that I was going to change the cycle and make my abuelita proud. I knew that I wanted to go to school, graduate high school and continue to a university to get my bachelors. Growing up, I had three male cousins that attended the university and I looked up to them a lot. However, I never saw any women of the family being at the university level. As Latinas, we have this stereotype that we only get married, have kids and are housewives. But I did not see myself as that, I couldn’t. I wanted something more for myself. I craved to learn and to grow and get out of that cycle that everyone seemed to be in. When I was 15, my abuelita passed due to cancer. I was devastated and swore that I would do everything and anything to make our dream come true. It was hard, extremely hard. I missed her so much and there were days where I just wanted to give up and drop out. But I kept going and her memory was my biggest motivation. I graduated high school in 2012 and I went on to college afterwards. I graduated with my bachelor’s in social work in 2018.
In my mind, the only thing I had was graduating college and working right after with a good career. But it never occurred to me that maybe I wanted to keep on studying and better preparing myself. I thought undergrad was the biggest thing that I could have and that I would stop there. It was not until about half a year after graduating with my bachelors that I decided I would apply for a master’s program at UNC-Charlotte and I remember telling myself that the only way I would get my master’s was if I got a scholarship, if not, I would not attend. It was like my abuelita was listening and wanting me to keep going. I got accepted to the Advanced Standing Social Work master’s program at UNC-Charlotte with a full ride. I was so amazed and shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Despite the struggles and the lack of information, I was a graduate student.
Today, after a long year of working and studying, I have finished my master’s and feel tremendously excited and nervous at the same time. The system was not made for Latinos to understand, nevertheless, for women of color. However, I look forward to being the change not only for my family, but for my Latino community. I am the first woman in my family to get a masters degree and am already thinking about getting my PhD in a few years.
I may not be walking a stage and graduating to close on this amazing phase of my life, but I will be celebrating with the woman that dreamed along with me since I was a little girl. Abuelita, si se pudo. Gracias por siempre ser mi amuleto de la suerte. Te amo abue!
Esmeralda Mendez is Mexican-American. She is the proud daughter of immigrant parents and has Latinx roots. Esmeralda is a dancer, poet, and passionate young woman who graduated with her Masters in Social Work in May 2020.