Trailblazers in Their Families, Now They’re Forging a Path Through a Pandemic Graduation - Voice of San Diego

Trailblazers in Their Families, Now They’re Forging a Path Through a Pandemic Graduation

Coronavirus is robbing students of the opportunity to celebrate their high school graduations. It’s a particularly cruel reality for students who are the first in their families to earn a degree.

Angel Zepeda
Angel Zepeda / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For decades, high school graduation has been a routine of American life — a given for some, a luxury for others.

The coronavirus is now robbing everyone of that point of pride.

In a normal world, this month would have given students the opportunity to walk across a stage and receive their diplomas in front of friends and families. Instead, schools are postponing graduation ceremonies for later in the year or considering different ways to honor graduates.

Still, the absence of a physical celebration to conclude high school is particularly hard for the students who are considered trailblazers among their families. Many of the seniors I spoke to in recent weeks will be the first in their families to earn a high school degree.

Angel Zepeda / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As news of a global pandemic spread, San Ysidro High School Student Angel Zepeda knew his senior year was going to be disrupted, but he didn’t know how badly. It was a Friday afternoon in late March when he found out he’d be taking the rest of his classes online.

“I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to see anyone again,” he said. “I made so many friendships in high school, people that have been really impactful in my life and made me who I am today, so it was definitely hard to not even have a last goodbye.”

Zepeda had been involved in several clubs and sports in school, including ballet folklorico (a regional Mexican dance) the Mexican American student group MEChA, water polo and swimming. On top of keeping up with his schoolwork and extracurricular activities, Zepeda said he stayed focused on what he wanted to achieve, especially being a first-generation student who often feels pressured to live up to high expectations.

“What did pressure me was making sure I don’t let go of the opportunities my parents have given me. Not that they [parents] enforce that a lot on me, but I personally made it a priority,” he said.

Zepeda will be attending the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall and plans to study business economics.

Endiya Griffin
Endiya Griffin / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For Endiya Griffin, a senior at San Diego Metropolitan and Technical High School, going to college isn’t something new in her family. She grew up visiting her mother at work as an adjunct professor and has several families who are college graduates. Griffin, however, is an only child, which means she will be her parents’ only high school graduate. She spent her years of high school advocating for students of color and co-founded San Diego Unified’s Black Student Union Coalition, which helps support and empower black students and community members.

Griffin said she will miss the close relationships she had with her teachers and community but is hopeful that she can find the same environment at the University of Southern California, where she plans to study journalism and anthropology.

Griffin’s main concern at the moment is what will happen when she actually starts college. USC recently announced an increase to tuition prices regardless of whether classes don’t resume in person in the fall.

“The first semester of college, that’s you getting acclaimed and making friendships that are going to last you the rest of your life potentially and really grounding yourself in the space you’re going to be in the next four years,” Griffin said. “That’s unfortunate if it ends up being online, but I’ve definitely been researching opportunities as far as gap years.”

Salvador Bravo
Salvador Bravo / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Salvador Bravo, a senior at James Madison High school, also wants to break the chain in his family. His parents dropped out of high school and Bravo said he almost went down that same path to pursue his dream of becoming a soccer player. But then he got involved with Reality Changes, a local nonprofit that mentors low-income students in San Diego, and began thinking about his other options.

“I really got to experience what success would be like for me as a first-gen because no one else in my family had done this step, so I wasn’t really encouraged to do it,” he said. “Without that emotional support, I wouldn’t be in this stage right now.”

Because his siblings declined to pursue four-year colleges after high school, Bravo said he felt the pressure of being a trailblazer for his family.

“I was overwhelmed and didn’t really know if I wanted to take that path, but Reality Changers really transformed my mindset,” he said.

Bravos will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall and plans to study mechanical engineering but said he’s open to getting into politics.

“I’m a very ambitious person and some people may say I have big dreams, but I want to say that maybe one day I’ll become the president of the United States.”

Michelle Perales Panduro
Michelle Perales Panduro / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hoover High School senior Michelle Perales Panduro said she’s disappointed she won’t get to experience many of the end-of-the year events that mark the end of high school, such as prom and grad night, but said the pandemic has given her time to decompress from her schoolwork. Not only did Pareles Panduro apply to 16 colleges and dozens of scholarships, she had to figure out paying for college. Despite the culture and language barrier that force many first-generation students to maneuver the world of financial aid and student loans all on their own, Pareles Panduro said her parents taught her something more important.

“The fact that we applied to all these scholarships and look for opportunities so that money isn’t a problem and now getting a full ride, that means a lot to my parents because I know that they will never be able to pay $60,000,” she said.

Pareles Panduro will studying biochemistry and genetics at the University of Richmond.

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