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Marie Manipud didn’t expect that her college graduation would be much of an event. 

The UC San Diego public health major had immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines at 14, becoming the first in her family to navigate the American education system. As a first generation college student, she saw commencement as the culmination of all the emotional support she received from family and friends in her academic career. But she knew many campuses were responding to the risks of the coronavirus pandemic by moving graduations online. 

So it was a surprise for Manipud when she received a message from another student while checking in students for coronavirus testing at her job as a community health worker: UC San Diego would be holding an in-person commencement. She would have an opportunity to walk on stage while her family cheered her on. Shocked, she immediately called her mom, who teared up after hearing the news.

“It’s a big deal because I really don’t think it’s just about me, but about everyone,” Manipud said.

As coronavirus vaccination ramps up across California, first-generation students have played central roles in pushing colleges to consider in-person options for graduation. For many first-generation students like Manipud, their families and support systems, walking the stage at graduation represents closure and a celebration of their academic and personal journeys. While many campuses will hold virtual or drive-through graduations, some are adapting traditional in-person ceremonies with health and safety regulations in mind. 

In-person commencements can be hosted safely at outdoor venues if colleges and universities require universal masking, social distancing, and fewer guests than normal, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco.

“If you could do it like we’re doing pro sports, with distancing, limited density, and masks, I think you can follow those guidelines and pull it off,” Rutherford said. 

Rutherford said breaking up commencement into smaller events organized by major or college is one avenue institutions can take to limit crowds. The later commencement events are scheduled, the lower the risk, he said, adding that the current vaccination rate in California would mean the number of fully vaccinated people in the state should double between mid-April and June.

That view is reflected in guidance the California Department of Public Health released to universities in late March, outlining how they can safely host in-person commencement ceremonies. Colleges should ensure they are also following the advice of their local health departments, the guidance notes. 

But faced with the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic, some campuses are choosing caution. 

At Cal State Los Angeles, many students were ecstatic when they heard their campus would offer an in-person graduation. After months of lobbying by the student body president, Diana Chavez, the college’s vice president of student life called Chavez to let her know that the stories she shared of first-generation students like herself had struck a chord. The university would find a way to make a live ceremony work.

“When I got that phone call, I just started crying,” Chavez said. 

But those plans fell apart last week, when the university said via email that their planned graduation at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena would feature no students walking on the stage, no names being read and no guests. After students blasted the plan on social media, administrators canceled the event and now say they are looking for a new venue to host an in-person graduation for the classes of 2020 and 2021 at a later date. 

“It was just disappointing to see that email. Especially for our student body, ceremonies are a rite of passage to share with your friends and family,” said Chavez.  

Diana Chavez, left, and her sister Carolina Chavez had hoped to walk the stage at Cal State LA’s graduation later this month after Diana, the student body president, helped convince officials to host an in-person ceremony. But the university has postponed the event indefinitely. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Other universities are attempting novel approaches to try and satisfy students. California State University, Sacramento will hold a drive-through commencement ceremony — a “CARmencement” — for the classes of 2020 and 2021. 

The decision came after a majority of students voted in a university survey for an in-person stadium commencement as the type of ceremony they would most likely attend. Students and their families will have to remain in their vehicles throughout the festivities, Sacramento State officials said.

That frustrated child development major Sophia Esquivel, who started a petition with her sorority sister calling on the university to modify the ceremony and let students walk on stage. 

As a first-generation student, Esquivel will be the first among her six siblings to graduate. Having the ability to walk across a stage is especially important for students like herself, she said, because it also represents the moment that their parents worked for. 

Esquivel said she was amazed by the immediate feedback from students. “They’re like, ‘We don’t know if we should speak up or not and now you gave us a platform to,’ ” she said. “President Nelsen’s emails were getting flooded, the board members, our newspaper at school… So this has gotten a lot more attention than obviously I thought it was going to get.” 

University officials say they’re concerned about safety. 

“We know that students want a stadium commencement, but there are still too many risks and we have a responsibility to our students, their guests, and our employees who have to work these events,” said Cely Smart, chief of staff to the university’s president.

Like Sacramento State, Cal State Northridge is offering a hybrid graduation, with both virtual commencements and car parades for the classes of 2020 and 2021. Due to the size of the combined graduating class, CSUN’s dean of students said the campus library’s lawn, where graduation usually takes place, is not large enough to hold a ceremony while following safety guidelines. 

The announcement of the hybrid option sparked a student-led petition for an in-person graduation that had gathered more than 2,700 signatures as of May 11.

Senior transfer student Kimberly Lopez, who signed the petition, said that the idea of walking down a university stage and receiving her diploma is what kept her going during community college, as she dealt with financial aid and college applications without guidance from her immigrant parents. 

“I’m always gonna feel like there’s something missing,” said Lopez, also the first in her family to attend college. “I guess I know I’m going to receive my diploma in the mail and we have this virtual graduation, but it’s not going to be the same.” 

Cal State San Bernardino senior Jorge Navarro carries a sign during a demonstration calling for an in-person commencement ceremony on April 22, 2021. Photo courtesy of Jorge Navarro

At California State University, San Bernardino, where video slideshows with graduates’ names will replace traditional commencement events for the second year in a row, senior Jorge Navarro created his own petition for an in-person ceremony at the urging of his mother and grandmother.

Navarro said he was thinking not only of himself, but of his classmates who are parents and wanted their children to see them walk the stage. 

Along with other students, he created a group chat to organize for an in-person event, and staged small demonstrations on campus.

“I spent 5 years of my life to be recognized by slideshow!” read Navarro’s sign at an April 22 protest.

A statement from the university said that San Bernardino is “at an increased risk of COVID exposure” and that “significantly higher levels of vaccination in our communities must be achieved before the university can consider holding gatherings of large groups of people.”

While some colleges are creating hybrid ceremonies or going completely virtual, all nine undergraduate University of California campuses and some community colleges will offer in-person commencements. 

Ana Rosas Pacheco, a first-generation student at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, said going to college symbolizes a better life. She’s excited that the community college will have a hybrid in-person and drive-thru graduation in late May that will follow county health guidelines. Students will drive up to a designated staging area, exit their vehicle, and receive their diploma. 

Pacheco, who also serves as a student trustee, said the hybrid model was a compromise between the college and students, who wanted an in-person graduation.

“It’s very emotional and it feels surreal,” said Pacheco, who is transferring to Fresno State in the Fall. “All the work and sacrifice that me and my family made are finally paying off.” 

The University of California is allowing students to bring two guests per graduate. Those attending the ceremonies must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior or have tested negative for COVID-19 within three days, according to guidelines sent by President Michael V. Drake to campus chancellors. While more students have received the vaccine since California expanded eligibility to those 16 and older, the policy has raised concerns for those who cannot get their shots in time for the ceremonies.

But for Manipud, the UC San Diego student, the prospect of an in-person graduation made her feel hopeful about returning to some sense of normalcy after months of balancing her studies with a full-time job helping communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“It kind of felt like, for me personally, there was a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Domingo, Hall, Karim and Reagan are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Emma Hall is an intern for the CalMatters College Journalism Network. Currently, at Sacramento State, she is studying journalism with a minor in ethnic studies. Hall’s background is in diversity and...