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It Takes a Family: Fresno State Commencement Honors Parents, Too

Fresno State president Joseph I. Castro greets Patricia Reyes. Patricia’s daughter Maria Ortega is a first-generation college graduate, and will now go on to a PhD program at Brown University. President Castro was also the first in his family to graduate from college; his grandparents were farm workers who immigrated from Mexico. Cary Edmonson / Fresno State University

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA -- For many of us, obtaining a higher education has come with great sacrifice. I recently graduated from California State University, Fresno. Though it is a very diverse institution, Latinos make up 40 percent of the student body. Many of them, like me, are first generation college students.

My mom, Patricia, traveled the path thousands prior had paved in order to give her two daughters a tangible future, especially an education. As a five-year-old girl, I was unaware of what would await us on the other side of the border from Mexico. My mom knew it wouldn’t be easy but we definitely weren’t prepared for all the hardships life would eventually throw our way.

Like many other Latinas, I was charged with taking care of my family from a young age, though I had an unparalleled support system. It was not visible since my mom worked fourteen hour days, but I knew she cared and wanted the best for me. That would be reinforced when she would set me aside, her face etched with permanent lines of endurance and tears in her eyes, that I should never give up.

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I did not. After four years of hard work at Fresno State, I was named the Dean’s Undergraduate Medalist for the College of Social Sciences. In my college's convocation, I was the only undergraduate to give a speech, half of which I gave in Spanish. I wanted to let my mom know how much her sacrifices meant to me and how grateful I was.

But I also attended another very special commencement at my university - Fresno State's Annual Latino Commencement Celebration (LCC), which has a 38-year history. I was one of 840 Latino graduates walking into the Save Mart Center to the applause and cheers of 12,600 family members and guests. Under the leadership of Dean Luz Gonzalez, this event has grown from a modest ceremony 38 years ago to the largest event of its kind in the nation.

In this commencement, when we finally get to that stage, it's not just our names that are uttered but also those of our parents. Hearing my name followed by “hija de Patricia Reyes” (daughter of Patricia Reyes) almost brought tears to my eyes.

No other ceremony recognizes our parents, the original DREAMERS, who sacrificed and toiled through sweat, blood and tears to get us this far. It takes an entire family to get us through college, and to be able to celebrate that is the best reward.

It’s a very special celebration, not only because we’re graduating but because this marks a huge milestone for our communities. In addition to our immediate family, there are cousins, uncles, nieces, grandparents, and friends who travel from all over the state to see us walk.

Fresno State president Joseph I. Castro greets Patricia Reyes. Patricia’s daughter Maria Ortega is a first-generation college graduate, and will now go on to a PhD program at Brown University. President Castro was also the first in his family to graduate from college; his grandparents were farm workers who immigrated from Mexico. Cary Edmonson / Fresno State University

Over the last three years, the LCC has grown from 9,800 to 12,600 guests, compared to Fresno State’s university commencement, which has increased from 8,500 to 10,200. LCC's success is in large part due to our families, who fill that arena with people and pride for the educational accomplishments of their children.

I grew up poor in Calwa, a small neighborhood plagued with negative preconceived notions of “gang” activity. It wasn’t too long before I began noticing that many of the young brown and black men of my community see their life as a dead end; many of them are convinced that they won’t live to be 25 and if they do, they will probably be behind bars. They don’t aspire to obtain a higher education because, in my ‘hood, simply graduating from high school is a tremendous feat in itself.

Seeing those disparities kept the fire within me ignited to push through, even when the going got tough. In my senior year of high school, I was chosen as one of fifty freshmen in the entering class of the Smittcamp Family Honors College at Fresno State. The scholarship not only paid my tuition but gave me privileges few others had. This allowed me to focus my efforts on advocacy instead of worrying about drowning in debt or having to rush to get to my third part-time job.

Maria Ortega, at center in glasses (4th from left), attending the Fresno State University Latino Commencement on May 17 in Fresno, Calif. Cary Edmonson / Fresno State University

Throughout my time at Fresno State, I was able to branch out and get involved in a variety of social justice issues. My passion and research thus far has focused on the school-to-prison pipeline, an invisible force that pushes youth out of school and into prison.

I have been admitted into a doctoral program at an Ivy League University. This has gone beyond my wildest imagination since these institutions are usually reserved for those more privileged than me.

I hope to make the road to a PhD a little easier for other marginalized groups, especially women of color. Never did I think that I, a working class chicana from Calwa, would end up accumulating a rather impressive educational track record. But looking back, my family and my community were there every step of the way, and I am glad the Latino Commencement Ceremony recognized them all.