My parents arrived in the United States in June of 1989 when my father was 24 and my mother was 22. They left the small Central American country of El Salvador because the ongoing civil war and political tension was devastating their hometown, San Salvador. They both were forced to leave behind their parents, siblings and career to evade the war and change their lives and the lives of their future children. My mother was nearly done with her nursing degree and my father was completing his studies to become a dentist.
They landed in the United States and were able to find jobs at a local McDonald’s while living in Fairfax, Virginia. As the years went by, they welcomed their first child, my sister, in 1992, followed by my brother in 1994. At that point, they knew they were going to need new jobs to support their small family. My mother went on to get her associate degree and became a teacher in Arlington County, where my father began work as a custodian. After, they welcomed me to the family in 1999.
For as long as I can remember, my father would quote my late grandmother and tell us,
“A great education is the best inheritance I can give you all.”
Those words were repeated constantly in our home growing up. When we didn’t feel like doing homework, that was the first thing they would tell us. In our home, nothing came before education. I guess that was the price of living with an educator. I have vivid memories of my parents sitting down to do homework with us every night and telling us to dream big: to be a doctor or a lawyer (sorry those didn’t work out). That is exactly why they came to the United States. They wanted all their children to get through college and have a better life than they did back in their war-ridden home.
Now, nearly 32 years since arriving in the US, they have supported my siblings through a bachelor’s and a master’s degree each. They should be two months away from watching their last child make that walk as well. That has been my dream ever since I figured out what college really was. I wanted to make my parents proud and give them that experience of watching all three of their children walk across a stage and get their bachelor’s degree.
With the uncertainty surrounding UMW’s Spring 2021 commencement ceremony, I have taken it a lot harder than I expected I would. I have found myself thinking back to my sibling’s graduations and remembering the times I would tell myself that I was going to have that moment one day too. I pictured myself waiting to make the walk across the stage and trying to spot my family in the crowd before it was my turn to walk.
After all the sacrifices — leaving family behind, dropping their careers, working up to three jobs at a time — I wanted my parents to have a moment where they could celebrate and feel a sense of pride. To me, this degree will be theirs just as much as it is mine. I know there are many families that have found themselves in the same situation and I feel their pain. Being a first generation American and college graduate means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to many of my fellow UMW students in the same situation.
Thinking back to my siblings’ graduations, there was something special and uniting about graduation days. The whole family was there together, taking pictures, giving each other hugs. If there is one thing we know how to do as Latinos, it’s celebrate. After the ceremony, my father and my mother would always countdown.
“Four years until this is you.” Then, after one of my siblings got another degree, “Two years until this is you.”
Sadly, the countdown is close to its end and it is looking more and more likely that I will not have that moment to reward them for all of their hard work and sacrifices. If I do not get the chance, hopefully, through this they will know how much I wanted this moment for them and for me.