Liseth Figueroa and her young daughters crossed two countries’ borders, the Guatemalan mother propelled through Mexico into the United States by the image of her girls one day crossing a grand stage with caps, gowns and diplomas in hand.
Amid years of financial hardships, language barriers, culture shock, violence and work ethic, Estéfani Peña Figueroa, now 24, never lost sight of the graduation stage — an ambition instilled by her mother, whose life became a pilgrimage to give her daughters the education she never had.
This year was going to be the rich reward.
Peña Figueroa, a student with DACA protection, graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver this month with a degree in health care management. Her younger sister is graduating from Denver’s DSST: College View High School.
But because the coronavirus pandemic upended academic life and put a halt to large gatherings, there has been no pomp, no circumstance and no graduation stage to complete the Figueroas’ educational odyssey.
Many Colorado academic institutions canceled or postponed their graduation ceremonies in an effort to reduce the spread of the highly contagious new coronavirus. For first-generation college students like Peña Figueroa — the first person in her family to earn a college degree — the dissolution of a graduation ceremony felt especially stinging.
“I really wanted to go to school since I was little, but the education in Guatemala was so expensive and not the best opportunity,” Peña Figueroa said, her voice cracking. “Although my mother didn’t really know how to read back then, she would always try to read to me and always tell me — sorry I get so emotional — she would always tell me about the importance of going to school and going to college. My parents decided to give my little sister and I a better future.”
Fleeing violence and in search of educational opportunities, Peña Figueroa and her family came to the United States when she was 7 years old.
“The journey wasn’t easy,” Peña Figueroa said. “When I got here, I went to elementary school and faced a lot of challenges with culture shock, a different language.”
Peña Figueroa said she also lived with a violent man for a period growing up.
“Nevertheless, my mom’s biggest dream was for my little sister and I to graduate and be able to attend college,” Peña Figueroa said.
Peña Figueroa had been interested in anatomy since she was a little girl with dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse. Her aspirations were underscored when her mother got a terrible ear infection after the family moved to the United States. Liseth Figueroa didn’t have health insurance, and her paycheck was consumed by rent, groceries and child care. When Peña Figueroa’s mother finally sought medical care, she was left with a hefty bill.
“I was little, but I so clearly remember finding her crying because she couldn’t afford to pay it,” Peña Figueroa said.
The moment shaped Peña Figueroa, who would later study health care management at MSU Denver, learning about health insurance policies and providing care to vulnerable communities. She hopes to use her degree to work in a hospital and support undocumented individuals seeking medical care.
Will Simpkins, MSU Denver’s vice president for student affairs, said the sense of loss among students he’s talked with in the midst of the pandemic is palpable.
To ease the pain, Simpkins said MSU committed to continuing to pay students and hourly staff, calling or texting all 19,000 MSU students once a month to check in and see what they might need, and planning a graduation ceremony for December.
Sam Borrego, MSU Denver’s coordinator for first-gen initiatives, was a first-generation college student herself. Borrego explained how the disrupted final college semester was hitting first-gen students hard.
“You wait for this moment that’s going to bring closure to your experience, and it’s something that you envision yourself doing since you’re a little kid,” Borrego said. “Not being able to bring in their family and for them to share that moment and be that example to children and younger siblings is hard because a lot of first-gen students see themselves as role models for others. That moment you have your cap and gown on and you’re in that arena — it’s a good example of an image for younger siblings and children to have.”
Borrego organized a virtual graduation ceremony for first-gen students so their lifelong efforts still got some form of recognition.
While the strut across the graduation stage that Peña Figueroa imagined may only happen in her dreams, her mother’s pride is the sweetest celebration.
COVID-19 forced the Figueroa family to cancel a graduation trip to California to see family and show Liseth Figueroa the ocean, but the tight-knit mother and daughter trio is still reveling in their accomplishments together.
“I owe everything — all my accomplishments — to her,” Peña Figueroa said. “I’m so thankful for everything she has done. My mom is laid off right now, but she is so positive for us. She is so proud because my sister and I did it. She always said, ‘I cannot help you financially, but I can help you with all my support, all my encouragement and all my love.’ We did it, Mom.”
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