The Story Behind a Petition to Hold College Commencement in Person, Despite COVID-19

Raquel Perez is earning her associate degree in audio engineering this spring. It’s a milestone many semesters in the making. The 32-year-old has spent the last five years pursuing a degree at Houston Community College, balancing classes with paid work and raising her seven children.

Propelling her forward through all of that effort was her vision of the day she’d walk across the commencement stage and accept her diploma.

So learning that her college did not plan to host a graduation ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns?

“It’s a punch in the gut,” she says. “It’s not acceptable to me.”

A canceled graduation may seem like just another missing moment in a long, disappointing year of crisis. But for Perez, the promise of commencement adds up to much more than cheers and tears and gowns and mortarboards. It’s a rite of passage worthy of its name, signifying the start of a new life for her and her family.

The deep meaning graduation day holds for students like Perez is something she thinks college leaders should take into consideration when they’re weighing health risks and logistics this spring. That’s why she started a petition in favor of holding a ceremony that people can physically attend instead of the online version her college currently has planned. It’s one of several petitions circulating among students across the country who hope to push their colleges to offer some kind of event they can experience in person—with all the pomp and circumstance they’ve been counting on.

Raquel Perez and her family. Courtesy of Perez.

It’s been a hard year of mostly online learning for Perez. Instead of being able to use the audio labs on campus, she says she had to buy her own equipment and set up a studio at home to complete her coursework. She was furloughed and lost work. And then that major winter storm hit Houston, knocking out her running water.

Just as it seemed that “better things are coming,” she says, “the one thing I’m waiting for—I’m super excited for—is not turning out.”

Perez says that as a young mom, she didn’t have the chance to walk across her high school graduation stage. Last year, she earned a college certificate—but due to the pandemic, she got a slideshow instead of a real commencement. Having missed those two ceremonies makes the prospect of missing another, bigger one hard for her to take.

“I worked hard, have not slept, gone to classes, put my whole work schedule around this, just to be told, ‘You don’t get it, and you’re never going to get it,’” she says.

The loss of the experience is not hers alone. Perez’s husband is also graduating this spring, from Houston Community College’s HVAC program.

“We try to make sure our classes are opposite days. Either he works in the day and I go to work at night, or we’re trading off,” she says. “It’s been a lot.”

And their children—ages two to 15, among them two sets of twins—who have grown up watching their parents study were looking forward to witnessing the reward of that commitment.

“They’re excited for me,” Perez says. “They know that it means a lot to me to get to walk the stage.”

Making a virtual graduation feel worse to Perez is the fact that other kinds of activities are opening back up in her region—and other nearby schools have planned to hold their ceremonies in person.

“I just feel like maybe because we are a community school, they don’t owe it to us. We are a lot of working parents, a lot of minorities,” she says. “My two-year degree doesn’t mean it’s any less worth it. I tried hard for that too.”

As of Friday, the petition Perez started had 600 signatures.

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