This article was originally published on April 13, 2020.
Rosa Gonzalez has been thinking about her college graduation day since she was a child. Her parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7 — they wanted a better life for their family, including access to a quality education.
“My parents came to the U.S. for us to succeed. They left everything behind and had to start over for us,” Gonzalez said. “When I have a hard day, that’s what I remember.”
The College of Business senior looked forward to wearing her cap and gown in family pictures outside of U-M’s Crisler Arena on April 26. She planned to wear her maize (M)Talent stole she earned through presenting at the (M)Talent Showcase. At the graduation party afterward, Gonzalez wanted her mom to make a favorite dish — tacos, with a variety of homemade salsas — for a large crowd of family and friends to enjoy.
But due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzalez— and millions of college students around the world — had those best-laid plans changed. “I know this is not anyone’s fault and people are doing the best they can, but I wanted my parents to see me graduate this month. I worked so hard for this. And so did they.”
Office of Student Life Interim Associate Director Tyler Guenette, who has known Gonzalez since her freshman year, said a milestone like graduation is important to commemorate. He said it is an especially big deal for UM-Dearborn, a campus where 40-percent of students are first-generation graduates.
“Sometimes families, like mine — I was the first in my family to go to college — think of college as this abstract concept,” Guenette said. “But a graduation ceremony is something tangible that people understand. Some experience it in middle school and most do in high school — it’s universal. Everyone is well aware of its importance. But when that is missing, there can be feelings that there’s been a loss of significance of those accomplishments or a loss of closure. When you walk across the stage, it symbolizes the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. That’s why it’s important to find ways to honor our students.”
To make sure the Spring Class of 2020 gets their deserved recognition, UM-Dearborn leadership shared alternative graduation plans with students last week. These range from posting experiences virtually this month to a commencement ceremony in December.
Gonzalez said she’s glad campus is giving graduates the option to participate in the winter ceremony. And she’s recently worked through her disappointment over April’s canceled commencement by looking for a silver lining in the abrupt end of her senior year — Gonzalez said she found it by reflecting on her college journey.
Gonzalez said her college success started when she took part in campus’ first group of UM-Dearborn’s Opportunity Scholars, now called Engaged Scholar Community, which is a cohort for high-achieving students from economically disadvantaged high schools. It helped connect her to employment opportunities, scholarships, student organizations and more. “To be honest, college was so confusing at first. It seemed so big and I didn’t know where to go. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from going to Michigan. Once I got to campus, I learned that I picked a university where people are ready to connect you to whatever you need to graduate. If you have the drive, they will get you there.”
Gonzalez attended the Forbes Under 30 Summit, an international business conference that took place in Detroit last fall with the assistance of a scholarship from Forbes and the College of Business.
She got to travel — one of her most memorable experiences was going to Memphis, Tenn. for the campus’ Alternative Breaks volunteer program, which she helped organize. One of her service projects was teaching young Hispanic children how to read in an after-school program. “When I was growing up, I went to one just like it. It brought me back to when I was in elementary school. I only spoke Spanish and I didn’t know what people were saying. It was so hard. But you never forget the people who help you get to where you are. Because of the people who have helped me, I want to live a life of service.”
And when Gonzalez was concerned that she didn’t have the financial means to continue college full time, she learned of available scholarships — like the College of Business Get to Graduation Fund — that pushed her toward the finish line. Knowing the impact scholarships have made, Gonzalez said a goal of hers is to establish a scholarship.
“I’ve had four great years of really awesome professors and I’ve met so many amazing people. Coronavirus can’t take that from me. And my education and experiences helped me get a job that I’m excited about.” Gonzalez starts as a financial analyst at Johnson & Johnson in their Pharmaceutical Sector, located in Pennsylvania, in June.
Dean of Students Amy Finley said Gonzalez shows a perseverance that many students on UM-Dearborn’s campus have. “Our students have gone through tough situations before — like balancing work, family responsibilities, job challenges and coursework — and made it to the other side stronger. I wish college didn’t end this way for them, but I know our students are well equipped to handle an extra burden and come out with lessons that will prepare them for success in the future.”
For Gonzalez, who credits Finley and Guenette for guiding her through college, this time has definitely presented obstacles — for example, she can’t prepare for her move to Pennsylvania for her job. And so much feels uncertain and unfinished.
But she’s not going to focus on the negative — instead, Gonzalez realizes spending time with the family she credits for inspiring her is a gift. With the sheltering-in-place order, Gonzalez said she’s reconnecting with her parents. “I’m not just eating, showering and sleeping here. We are actually spending time together now.”
She plans to return to campus in December for graduation. But Gonzalez said she realizes that regardless of when she returns, her UM-Dearborn experience goes wherever she does. And other graduates take theirs with them too.
“The Class of 2020 has earned a Michigan education, made connections and created a lot of memories. That’s something we’ll always have no matter where we are.”