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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

To Immigrant Families, Cancelled Graduations Are No Small Loss

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On a rainy June day in 2006, my parents and I visited Harvard University. In the typical, self-sacrificing style of many Persian parents, they bought me an overpriced umbrella from a street vendor but proceeded to wear Hefty bags over their heads in the rain.

We joined 30,000 others at Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre and found nosebleed seats with the worst possible view of the commencement program. But it didn’t matter; we were at Harvard, 18 years after we’d escaped Iran, to watch my older sister graduate with a master’s degree. Fire and brimstone could have fallen from the sky and still we would have stayed for one of the most redeeming moments of our lives.

We were among the loudest attendees. Our cheers were matched only by some 25 Armenians in the next row. Like us, they had been redeemed in the United States and weren’t about to remain quiet.

After the program, when we saw my sister in Harvard Yard, dressed in the glorious crimson color of her new alma mater, we burst into tears.

I’ve been thinking about that day, given that graduations nationwide have been canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus will rob students of the greatest culmination of their sweat and sacrifice: a traditional graduation ceremony.

But it will also rob others — the parents who had to sweat and sacrifice to help them get there. I can’t help thinking about them. What is it about a graduation that makes it one of the most momentous events of our lives? High school graduations now boast as much pageantry as college ceremonies. Our toddler recently had a graduation “program” from daycare. He cried through the first half and nearly slept through the second.

At its heart, a commencement ceremony is just as much for loved ones as it is for graduates, and public recognition is the icing on the cake of hard-earned diplomas. In the age of social media, selfies with fellow graduates wearing caps, orchid leis and gold cords flood our devices. Every spring, Facebook feeds become a sea of black gowns, and Instagram scrolls reveal bright smiles and emotional family members who never imagined their children would achieve so much. But more than graduating, we really love posting graduation pictures.

The virus will rob students of the greatest culmination of their sweat and sacrifice: a traditional graduation ceremony.

My friend Jessica M. Rabbany was set to graduate from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine on May 19 but the ceremony was canceled because in a few months, she and most of her graduating class will begin their residency training programs all over the world. There’s simply no way to reunite for a one-day graduation later this summer when each graduate will already be a resident. Rabbany is the first woman in her extended family to attend medical school, and her parents, siblings and aunt were planning to attend her graduation in Israel.

“It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime milestone,” she told me, “but as a physician-to-be in two weeks’ time, of course my utmost concern is for our elderly and immune-compromised populations, in addition to everyone at large.” Rabbany is wise and mature; I can’t imagine suffering through medical school without the pomp of a proper graduation.

USC has pushed this year’s graduation to a later date and UCLA, according to its commencement website, is promising “the best virtual event possible” on June 12. Harvard will “award degrees” online on May 28.

Imagine being the first in your immigrant family to graduate from college, only to hear your name called over a website while you sit at home in quarantine. I know we need to take all necessary safety measures but that’s a little heartbreaking.

Still, canceled graduation ceremonies have one silver lining: They’ll save lives. Instead of throwing their mortarboards in the air, graduates (and their families) can ensure their health and, in a few months throw their masks in the air instead.

Now that will be the defining image of the Class of 2020.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist. 

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