First Gen Grads

Three University of Georgia students who are the first in their families to graduate college in the U.S. share their perspective on the end to the spring semester. From left to right: Rachel Borgel, Yamini Chavan and Jorge Barahona. (Photos/Courtesy)

Before transferring to the University of Georgia in 2016, Jorge Barahona said the graduation ceremony and fireworks were one of the first things that captured his attention.

While U.S. college representatives visited his high school in San Salvador, El Salvador, to scout, Barahona said only a few students left for the U.S. each year. Back in high school, UGA was known among his friends for its football. They would watch football games against teams like Alabama and South Carolina, but Barahona said actually attending these universities seemed out of his reach.

“Graduating from a big school like UGA, it’s always been a dream of mine,” Barahona, a psychology major, said. “I was like, ‘This is one of those colleges that I’m probably not going to be able to afford to go to.’”

While his father graduated college in El Salvador, Barahona is the first in his family to graduate from college in the U.S. When UGA canceled its spring commencement ceremony, Barahona said it was a “tough hit.”

“I’m not going to be able to have this moment that I was looking forward to four years ago,” Barahona said.

For Barahona and two other seniors, their graduations represent a benchmark in their families. Some of them completed an educational path their parents weren’t able to finish while others were the first in their families to pursue higher education in the U.S.

With the spring commencement ceremony canceled and a fall ceremony contingent on the state of the COVID-19 outbreak, the status of an in-person ceremony is still up in the air.

Rite of passage

When the spring commencement ceremony was canceled, Rachel Borgel said she cried for days.

While she’s still excited for the rescheduled ceremony, Borgel said the atmosphere around commencement won’t be the same. Graduation celebration plans have been upended, and Borgel said she’s not sure how much of her family can come to Athens in October.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be as special,” said Borgel, a political science major. “That point in my life has already passed.”

Both of Borgel’s parents’ educations were cut short. While they began their undergraduate degrees, they dropped out due to financial struggles. Borgel’s senior year was when she realized the importance of commencement and how much it meant to her parents.

“I had quite a few times on the phone with my mom or my dad where they would just stop the conversation,” Borgel said. “They would tell me how proud they were of me and how excited they were for me to graduate.”

Yamini Chavan’s parents moved to the U.S. after receiving their bachelor’s degrees in India. Chavan’s mother halted her master’s education to come to the U.S., which Chavan said influenced her mother’s view of her children’s education.

“She definitely wants to push me to go further and get more degrees because she stopped in the middle of her degree to give her kids a better chance at getting a good education,” Chavan said.

Because Chavan, a cellular biology major, plans to attend medical school, she said she initially felt indifferent about the spring commencement cancellation. Chavan said her parents, on the other hand, were looking forward to commencement as a family event.

“The fact that it was canceled, I didn’t really think about it, but it also hurt them because they were looking forward to this,” Chavan said. “Seeing their child getting a degree from America is a pretty big deal.”

Barahona said his father wanted his family to move to the U.S. for career and educational opportunities. Barahona said the standard in El Salvador was to settle for a job in the corporate world rather than pursue a dream career because jobs in other fields, such as science or art, were considered risky.

“Having an education in America was always considered prestigious in my country since it meant that you could have more control over your future and develop yourself better as an individual,” Barahona said. “With this perspective in mind, my dad always made moving to the U.S. a priority, so we could study and exert in a career that was important to us.”

A family first

When Barahona was admitted into UGA, he said his parents didn’t understand the significance. But after he explained UGA’s legacy, Barahona said his parents’ perspective did a “complete 180.” His parents bought T-shirts and posted the news of his acceptance on Facebook.

“I was very proud of myself,” Barahona said. “I definitely felt lucky.”

While Barahona went to high school in El Salvador, his two younger brothers went to high school in the U.S. and followed his footsteps into U.S. colleges. Attending school in the U.S. allowed Barahona’s brothers to take Advanced Placement classes and earn college credit in high school, which Barahona said he missed out on in El Salvador.

As he started classes at UGA, Barahona said it was difficult adapting to the differences in the U.S. and El Salvadorian school systems. Barahona did not know a lot of the material that freshmen were expected to know at UGA, especially in STEM subjects. Barahona said attending community colleges aided his transition in fulfilling core courses, such as history and English, but he only began taking his psychology major-specific courses at UGA.

After his first semester, Barahona said he realized he had to change his “laid back” mentality from high school.

“I ended up improving, and eventually I got better grades,” Barahona said. “Here I am.”

With unfinished bucket lists and a semester cut short, this was not the ending UGA seniors had planned for, and for seniors’ future plans, the COVID-19 outbreak has affected more than just the spring commencement ceremony.

Chavan’s medical school plans are now up in the air due to the rescheduled Medical College Admission Test exams, which could affect medical school application cycles. However, Chavan said her friends in the same boat as her are equally confused and comforting each other.

“We’re going through similar things, so we can help each other out,” Chavan said.

While her senior experience was unconventional, Chavan said the other years of college are the most important to look back on.

“It’s not the ending that’s more important, it’s what you made of the time there,” Chavan said. “And I think I did a good job. I’m not looking back with regrets. I’m moving on happier.”

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