*Editor’s note: Catherine Stites is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.
Pandemic or not, the time has come for the class of 2020 to graduate.
With big gatherings banned and social distancing in place, graduating high school seniors have been forced to veer from the traditional avenue for celebration.
This spring, graduations have changed from walking across a stage to going virtual.
For three San Francisco first-generation students, this graduation season is bittersweet. They’ve missed out on those big milestones, but are still excited for the future that lays ahead with college around the corner.
Larissa Chacon Hernandez was looking forward to walking across the stage at Mission High School to get her diploma. COVID-19 changed all of that. Still, she said that doesn’t make the moment any less powerful. The pandemic served as an example of what perseverance is, she said, and how regardless of a ceremony, she, and the rest of the class of 2020 still have the strength to be an example to future generations.
With SFUSD schools closed since March 16 and the Bay Area shelter-in-place order beginning March 17, those close high school friendships feel different too. Ida B. Wells High School senior Maria Rodriguez said she texts her friends everyday, but it’s not the same as being in school together.
“I feel like we have a lot more to say when we’re face to face than on a screen,” Rodriguez said.
Senior year is a student’s last chance to get involved in high school events, but with the pandemic, these seniors didn’t get the option to participate.
Chacon Hernandez wanted to wait for her senior prom to go and dress up, and was disappointed when the dance was canceled.
“In the very end, it’s for a very good reason, which is saving lives,” she said.
In addition to senior prom being canceled along with fun end-of-the-year rallies, the change to online learning has been an added difficulty for many students.
“The teachers are assigning a lot of homework,” said Daniel E. Castaneda Garcia, a senior at Balboa Park High School.
Rodriguez felt the same way. “Everybody has a different pace and learning,” she said. “Some of them go faster than others.”
In her case, teachers have been posting all of the assignments at once, leaving it up to students to complete the work whenever they want.
Being home more often forces students to balance their family and school work in the same environment. Students also had to be on their computers a lot more than they were used to.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re like in a Latina household because you have to do a lot of responsibilities, a lot of stuff. And so for me it has been hard to manage between schoolwork, my house work and responsibilities plus being independently doing my own college stuff, like filling out paperwork and choosing classes,” she said.
Rodriguez said her school supplied laptops, and she was able to do the work when she could but “the teacher can’t really help everybody at once” in an online learning situation. She’s instead been getting help from her sister who is in college.
All three graduates received scholarships from the Latin American Teachers Association, helping them for their college tuition.
Rodriguez plans to go to City College of San Francisco and major in social justice and then transfer after two years.
“I would just like to be a better version of myself if I pursue the career that I would like, and not a career that just had the good money for it,” she said.
Rodriguez will be a first generation college student. “I feel good about it because there’s also like a lot of opportunities for first gen,” she said. She mentions how her dad wasn’t able to have the same opportunity to go to school.
Chacon Hernandez immigrated from El Salvador, her mother coming to the states before her. One of the challenges she faced when moving was her lack of knowledge of the language taught in school—English. She worried how people were going to be able to communicate with her, and as a result, she isolated herself when she first started school in Concord.
She was motivated to go to college and to be the first one in her family to do so. She not only wanted to prove others wrong about what they thought of her, but wanted to prove to herself that she can go meet her goals and go beyond them. “I really need to get this language in my brain,” she would tell herself.
Her family made the move from Concord to San Francisco, and she started attending Mission High School. “I feel like Mission has been my home when I came in,” Chacon Hernandez said.
She plans on attending San Diego State University, majoring in sociology. Her goal is to become a lawyer. “I really feel proud of myself because I really broke a lot of stereotypes, even in my own family,” she said.
Chacon Hernandez credits her teachers at her school for getting her to where she is today, and her mother. She talks about wanting to close a cycle for her to start a new one. “I feel like going to San Diego is like exploring a new horizon and going beyond being independent,” she said.
Castaneda Garcia is also a first generation college student who graduated high school this June. “I feel thankful because I got the opportunity [to go to college], but I feel nervous too, because I have a lot of questions in my brain and nobody in my family can help,” he said.
He plans on attending San Francisco State University and majoring in civil engineering. He mentions his interest in construction and design as his reason for picking that major. “I know my brain is gonna explode for all the math, but I’m going to try my best,” said Castaneda Garcia.
In these uncertain times, these graduates are a light in the dark.
“People of color are always taken for granted when it comes to certain things,” Chacon Hernandez said. “This is a pretty clear example that we can make it.”