Graduation wasn’t just about the walk

By Briannon Wilfong/El Inde

Walking on a college graduation stage wasn’t just important to me. It meant everything. It was more deeply rooted than just having to walk across a stage, dressed in your sweltering hot cap and gown with all your stoles and chords swinging from your shoulders while your family claps for you from their seats.

The one night where I would be really seen for all my accomplishments and for one night, I actually felt like I earned recognition for all the hard work I put in. To see that come to a screeching stop and taken from me didn’t just make me sad. I felt like I let myself down again for the second time.

I always look back at how my high school days came and went. One thing that was very important to me were my grades, which differed from my friends whose attitudes were just to pass their classes and move on with life. I was always considered an average student, all throughout school.

In elementary school, I tried to take on advanced math and be part of the Extended Learning Program. Students who score in the 97th percentile or above are considered gifted and talented. Classes outside the normal classroom take place to further help that student with their achievements, according to Mesa Public Schools.

I saw my friends easily test into E.L.P. while I secretly struggled with the math problems that looked like a foreign language for a fourth grader. I’ll never forget that feeling of not being smart enough to be recognized.

Fast forward to high school, and as a young freshman at an intimidating, rough-around-the-edges school, I promised myself I wouldn’t just be average. I would graduate with honors and with scholastic credits, something that the majority of students who attended Mesa High School didn’t bother to do.

I wanted to be seen for being smart and working hard. But senior year didn’t go according to plan. I was on track to graduate, but feeling burnt out by my classes. I had taken honors and AP courses for three years and got decent grades.

Sitting in my counselor’s office, I knew what he was going to tell me at this end-of-the-year meeting. “You’re on track to graduate, you’re graduating with honors, have you thought about which college to apply for?”

As I sat there, he looked at my transcripts and said, unfazed, “You won’t be graduating with honors.”

Feeling flustered, I managed to tell him I had all the requirements and I made sure to bust my butt to take all the necessary classes for that honors sash and seal.

“Your GPA doesn’t meet the requirement for the honors seal. Sorry,” he said.

I went home to break the news to my dad, who felt so sorry for me because he knew I took school seriously. I couldn’t contain all the hot tears running down my face.

“I’m just proud of you for graduating!” he said, trying to cheer me up as he embraced me in a tight hug.

I sat at high school graduation in a sea of purple caps and gowns. I looked like everyone else with no sash or honors seal to show for my dedication to school. I was ready to move on and start fresh at college.

I came to the University of Arizona and I promised to set my standards high. Thinking of all the shiny red and white sashes, the colorful chords that I saw college seniors wearing around campus during the spring for pictures, really pushed me to want to work harder to be that person.

So it was a game changer when it was announced that graduation was canceled.

I remember exactly what I was doing that day. I was at work. The quiet halls shouted loudly at the fact that the once 400 residents who lived there were now gone.

Then the email came delivering the news that graduation and any other commencements were to be canceled. I held it together during the last 15 minutes of my shift, but on the drive home, my emotions didn’t take a back seat.

Once again, I had felt like I disappointed myself beyond words. It was a surreal feeling to know that my list of accomplishments wouldn’t be recognized. Again.

External recognition wasn’t about showing off my achievements. It was about being the first in the family to graduate, first in the family to ever be able to walk across a major university’s stage and be achieving such a huge accomplishment. The pride of being a first generation college graduate goes hand in hand with feeling disappointed of not being able to have a commencement ceremony.

I’ve had a lot of people close to me and even strangers give their condolences about graduation, saying things like “this doesn’t mean your accomplishments will go unnoticed,” which I believe. Yet the truth behind never being able to experience a big commencement hits hard.

A lot of people say you won’t remember your college graduation, or it doesn’t matter about the walk or ceremony in 20 years. But I think differently.

For a few people, walking in a college commencement will be remembered for the rest of their lives.

For everyone who will not walk this spring because of the coronavirus, I am deeply sorry.

We all juggled internships, jobs, classes and life. We don’t have anything to show for it but a pressed, freshly printed piece of paper signed by the dean with our name on it. It will be shipped in the mail, and serves as our final product of college.

To the class of 2020, we almost did it!

Editor’s note: A version of this essay appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.

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