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Students Organize First "Harvard Latino Graduation"

Image: Al Gore Nominated for President of Harvard University
File photo, people walking around Harvard University''s main campus. Getty Images

A desire to create a space where Latinos graduating from Harvard University can celebrate their accomplishments with their families in a more meaningful and personal way led a group of students to organize the first-ever Harvard Latin@ Graduation ceremony.

“Many of us are first-generation college graduates and come from middle to lower-income backgrounds. So to be able to graduate from a prestigious institution like Harvard, it’s just really a dream come true,” said Erika Ontiveros Carlsen, a 27-year-old who’s graduating with a Master’s of Divinity degree from Harvard. She led efforts to plan the Harvard Latin@ Graduation - the "@" symbol is more gender neutral.

At the bilingual ceremony taking place Wednesday evening, more than 65 Latino graduates are participating and will be presented with a stole on stage by their family members. While most graduation ceremonies limit the number of guests each graduate can invite, at this event the students were allowed to invite as many family members and guests as they wanted - one of the reasons to hold this event, said some of the organizers. The event is closed to the public due to space considerations.

Two Harvard alumni—Latino Rebels founder and Futuro Media Group's Digital Media Director Julio Ricardo Varela and well-known political and legislative strategist Laura Esquivel—were chosen to be the master’s of ceremonies. Univision and Fusion journalist and anchor Jorge Ramos, whose daughter is also graduating from Harvard this week, was picked as the keynote speaker.

Besides giving graduates a chance to celebrate their accomplishments alongside their families, organizers said the ceremony offered graduates an opportunity to come together to reflect on how they got where they are today and what they can do moving forward to give back to their community. Similar Latino graduation ceremonies are held at other colleges and universities.

Carlsen said nostalgia from her undergraduate graduation led her to organize the Latino graduation ceremony at Harvard.

“When I think about the most meaningful moments of my life, I think about the time I crossed the stage for my undergraduate degree when I graduated from the University of San Francisco,” she said, adding that it was “incredibly meaningful” to have her mother, grandmother and aunt present her with a stole during her undergraduate graduation ceremony.

Dorothy Villarreal, 21, also helped organize the Latino graduation ceremony and is receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard this week. She said the ceremony serves as a way to “celebrate where we come from and how we got here.”

Villarreal, who was raised by a single mother, recalled how difficult it was to complete her degree. One of her first assignments at Harvard, she said, was writing a 15-page paper that was due in three days. “I had never written anything more than four pages, so that was a huge shock for me,” she said.

Harvard is one of the world's most prestigious universities. According to its website, 13 percent of the students admitted for the undergraduate class of 2018 are Hispanic.

“I think that everybody has a lot of those moments of wondering why they are here and how they made it,” Villarreal said.

For graduating student Elizabeth Salinas, 26, the Latino graduation ceremony serves as a way to thank her parents for pushing her to pursue higher education, something they never did. Her father is a school bus driver and her mother works as a medical billing clerk.

“They didn’t go to college, but they always encouraged me and my siblings to focus on education and really stressed the fact that education would lead to a better life,” said Salinas, who’s graduating with a master’s degree in education.

Julio Ricardo Varela said that Latino alumni like himself have been inspired by what these students have organized. "We have to support this event and ensure it becomes one of Harvard's great, permanent traditions."