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Latino college graduates get a virtual, national celebration

“Forty percent of Latinos that go to college are the first in their families to go...This is an important milestone," said Excelencia in Education's Deborah Santiago.

Latino graduates from across the country were honored on Friday in a virtual celebration put on by Excelencia in Education, a national organization that works with institutions of higher education to improve Latino college enrollment and completion.

“Forty percent of Latinos that go to college are the first in their families to go,” Excelencia co-founder and CEO Deborah Santiago said. “This is an important milestone. We thought as a national organization, what can we do? Even in these turbulent times, we cannot forget we’re feeding hope as well.”

The hour-long celebration, which was live on Facebook, featured appearances by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation President Allan Goldston and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. Journalist Maria Hinojosa, host of NPR's "Latino USA," delivered a keynote speech to the graduates.

Debora Menieur Nunez, a graduate of the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, attended the virtual ceremony. Nunez is the first student on her campus to be named a Truman Albright Fellow and plans to pursue public service with her scholarship.

“For many of us Latino students, we dream about graduation as a capstone of many sacrifices, many sleepless nights, and the effort and sacrifices of us and also our family members,” she said. “It’s a moment when you finally see and are recognized for your achievements and your efforts.”

Hinojosa acknowledged the disappointment and uncertainty that may come with graduating during a pandemic and economic downturn, but encouraged students to reframe how they look at their missed milestones.

“Your commencements will go down in the history books and so will you,” she said in her address. “What we have lived through now is going to teach you more than you could ever learn in a classroom.”

Worries about pandemic's effect on college enrollment

The pandemic has hit Latino youth and families particularly hard—Latinos have the highest rate of job losses and the highest rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths in certain states.

While Excelencia’s partner institutions are working hard to support their Latino student populations, there is the potential for a decrease in college enrollment numbers.

“I think we might see some drop offs in college enrollment because of the combined economic and infectious disease situation,” said Santiago. In some cases, students might choose to remain closer to home to support their families.

Ensuring Latino college enrollment and more importantly, graduation is crucial, according to experts like Santiago. According to 2015 data from Excelencia, only 22 percent of Latino adults 25 and older have an associate degree or higher, compared to 39 percent of all adults. Latinos also lag behind whites in college graduation rates; the former has a 41 percent graduation rate while the latter has a 52 percent rate.

After Hinojosa's keynote speech, a group of eight Latino graduates reflected on their feelings about having their senior year cut short, their dreams going forward and what they have learned from this pandemic.

“We have to be willing to stand up for those who don’t have a voice,” UT San Antonio graduate Yaritza Lopez said. “We have a high privilege because we have an education.”

For the speakers and graduates, the main message was one of encouragement and perseverance during uncertain times.

“The celebration is part of acknowledging we are successful,” Santiago said. “We have been successful and we can be successful moving forward despite the challenging issues.”

Hinojosa put it simply in her address.

“The excelencia is already you,” she said.

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