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To all my 1st gen immigrant graduates of 2020,

It’s not fair and I get it. 

Four plus years of hard work, perseverance, and navigation of one of the most expensive and treacherous systems in the US will seemingly go unrecognised. For better or worse, we represent the incredible investment our parents made into the American Dream. Our graduation from UMBC is one step towards that elusive goal.  Yes, our graduation should be celebrated! We should be expecting Facebook ovations, WhatsApp congratulations, gifts from proud relatives and random admiring phone calls from people we haven’t seen (or remember) since childhood. Rather, the grand finale to our four plus years of grueling college coursework and circumnavigating the financial aid process comes, not with a bang, but with a stay-at-home order. 

Anticlimactic really. 

I remember completing my very first FAFSA application with my mum. Really it was just me compiling paperwork and tax information that neither of us really understood, in the hopes that I would get into college and she would not get convicted for tax fraud. This is a reality for many first-generation immigrants: lack of training, experience, and basic knowledge of the never-ending college application process (i.e. tax information, citizenship verification, home income information, family/marital status information). By my first year of college, I’d become a self-appointed tax expert and a perpetual prisoner of the financial aid office. But still I get no accolades! Now, this is not an essay meant to bash the Financial Aid office, rather, it is a little spotlight on the fact that the federal financial aid system was not built for  1st gen immigrants to navigate easily. Sandy Baum and Stella Flores (2011) explain this succinctly in their article:  “applying for college and financial aid - a complex task even for students with English speaking parents...is far more difficult for the children of non-English speaking immigrants, even those who are themselves fluent”.  

Even with weekends lost poring over paperwork, random emails from the bursar during class, and out-of-pocket tuition costs, WE STILL DID IT! We at least deserve some recognition for our work! I personally feel that, if not for me, a Commencement is needed for my distant relatives that held high hopes for their child lost to the land of opportunity. The grass may not be greener here, but I still managed to grow up and thrive regardless. They should be as proud of this as I am. Participating in a Commencement ceremony would have been the closure we all dreamed of. A celebration of the end of this chapter and the exciting beginning of the next.

So what now? With the stay-home order and COVID-19 limiting our movements and meetings, how can we celebrate? I spent the last two weeks compiling a list of alternatives to the commencement ceremony: 

(1) Call a group of friends over video and have my own little commencement.

 (2) Call relatives back home to catch up and remind (brag to) them of my achievements.

 (3) Photoshop my face onto one of the past graduates’ (very unlikely).

 (4) Thank my mum for working hard to put me in a position to succeed (it’s her ceremony too).

(5) Ordering a cap & gown on Amazon and playing loud music all day (anything to feel special).

(6) Invite all of my closest friends to compile a Top Ten UMBC Experiences We Will Never Forget list.


Luckily, with the amount of time we will be spending indoors, this list can be inexhaustible, which gives us more time to commend ourselves for graduating college. My fellow 2020 1st gen graduates, this is our victory and we need to celebrate it in any way we can. Congratulations!

This post is written by Tiwa, a Diversity & Inclusion Peer at the Mosaic Center. Tiwa is a senior majoring in Biology. In his spare time, he likes to watch a lot of anime.

Posted: April 21, 2020, 1:00 PM