Walking the stage at graduation is something people remember for the rest of their lives, a celebration of all the hard work to get that degree. But for first-generation students like Erika Collucci, it is something even bigger.
Collucci, a wine and viticulture senior, will be the first person in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. The odds were set against her as a first-generation student, with little guidance from her Italian parents on the process of applying to college. To her, graduation was the single most important occasion in her academic career.
Amid a global pandemic, universities across the nation have postponed or cancelled commencement ceremonies. As for Cal Poly, the results of a survey sent out in April will determine the way spring commencement will proceed. The administration has stated that an in-person ceremony will potentially be rescheduled for a “future date” — likely in December 2020 or Spring 2021.
“We are committed to providing you with a formal and memorable experience filled with all the pomp, circumstance, and recognition that each of you deserve,” Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said.
As of May, Cal Poly had not announced the results of the survey or whether students will return to campus in the fall. In a May 8th open letter to the CSU system, Chancellor Timothy White briefly addressed the subject, saying, “Campuses and the Chancellor’s Office have been discussing a wide range of possible scenarios for a reimagined, thriving, high-quality university. As the variables and uncertainties noted above become known, we will be ready to act accordingly.”
Collucci, along with the hundreds of first-generation students across the nation, will have to rely on the tools she learned while navigating college to guide her through graduation and post-graduation in a coronavirus-infected world.
Q&A with Erika Collucci
What does walking across the stage mean to you?
To me, I think walking across the stage for graduation would have been that symbol that I’ve been waiting for for the past twelve years of schooling and it’s kind of unfortunate that it’s not happening. I was reading an article about it and it’s crazy because there are worse things happening in the world right now and you can’t really put those aside and say that we have it the worst, but those terrible things that are happening in the world, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this major life milestone is being taken away from us. So it means a lot, especially knowing that the year before us had a perfectly fine graduation, and more likely than not the year after us will have a perfectly fine graduation. So to me it’s that we are going to be known as that one year of people who didn’t get that chance, so it means a lot to me especially because I know my parents would have loved to see that. They are the kind of people who would have stood in that heat and waited in that stadium just to see me walk across the stage and hear my name.
What was your family’s initial reaction to hearing that your graduation was canceled?
They were more concerned about how I was feeling, just because they know that I’ve been waitin for it and it’s not even like we had much time to prepare for it. I remember I was scrolling through my email and I was just about to order my cap and gown. Those are the things we could have been talking about. I was just about to confirm the catering for our graduation party and stuff so it was definitely a shock to them but they were more concerned about how I was feeling.
Is it emotional for you and your family to not be able to witness your graduation as a first-generation college student?
I think it has, mainly because the family that I see on and off, they were committed to coming to San Luis Obispo, it’s a good chunk of a drive to come up here and watch me do it. I was about to send out graduation announcements as well. We had them made and that’s not going to happen. It definitely has been emotional, we’ve been working through it together, I’ve always been taught to look at the positive side of things so this is just a trying time to show that you can still do that.
Do you feel like other graduating seniors can relate to your loss even if they aren’t first-generation students?
I definitely think so, because it’s affecting us all. We’re all in the same boat here, just like freshman year, you didn’t know anybody and no matter what background you came from you were super scared, ‘I don’t have any friends, this place is new,’ no matter where you were coming from you were all in the same boat, you were all there to make friends and learn, so I think that’s the kind of tail end of that is that we’re all coming off the offshoot on the same side and we’re about to all go do different things. Everybody has it differently, I don’t have anything planned for after college right now, but some people are getting laid off from jobs they were really excited about. We’re all dealing with it differently, but I think we can all relate to the whole of it.
What were you most looking forward to about graduation weekend?
I was most looking forward to waking up my mom at 4 a.m. and bringing her down to the bars with me, and she even said, when we were on the phone one time, “Well I’m glad I don’t have to so that bar crawl thing that you guys do,” and that was I think early on in the process when there was still chatter about what was going to happen, so I think now my mom would definitely give up her beauty sleep to go do the bar crawl if it meant that I could graduate. So definitely just the whole thing I mean, I don’t even have a cap and gown which is the worst part, to not even have a memento to commemorate the weekend.
How are you planning to celebrate your achievements without a traditional ceremony?
My mom still thinks there is a chance we’re going to book a huge venue back home and have a party, so maybe if things end soon enough that will still be relevant, but hopefully just be with my friends and have that date still be a reminder of what we’re going to do. Maybe have a makeshift ceremony of our own, but I still definitely want to celebrate all of the hard work that we’ve put in for such a long time. So definitely that and hopefully something in the Fall that we can still come back to and celebrate.
How impactful do you feel this will be on your college experience?
I think just like most things in life, ten years from now we are going to look back and laugh or ten years from now we’re going to be like, that was crazy. It’s going to be a crazy, funny story, but right now it’s kind of putting a damper on things. But it’s also nice knowing that I’m not the only one going through it. Every single college student in America who should have been graduating this spring is going through the same thing. So it’s not like I didn’t submit paperwork in time and I get to watch my friends do something I should have done. We’re all in this together so I think anyone graduating in the year 2020, whether it’s a senior in high school or a senior in college, we’re always going to remember it, and hopefully they’re going to have a way to make up for it so we can put our energy towards that.
Correction: An incorrect attribution has been removed from this story.