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What does the cancellation of convocation mean to first-generation students?

By Aaliyah Dasoo

In September 2019, Tanzina Nowshin started documenting her fourth year of mechanical engineering through video—a cute and sentimental way to remember her final year of university. 

When March rolled around and campus shut down, she thought the pandemic would only last about two weeks. It wasn’t until she saw COVID-19 cases rise in Toronto that she realized her graduation ceremony would be postponed. 

Instead of attending her graduation, Nowshin had her degree mailed to her and was invited to a tentative fall 2020 convocation ceremony. 

After postponing spring 2020 convocation ceremonies in March due to public health concerns, Ryerson also postponed fall 2020 ceremonies. 

The university will be holding a virtual ceremony on Nov. 17 for fall 2020 graduates, similar to the one held this past spring. 

In an interview with The Eyeopener, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi said “it was very difficult to postpone convocations,” but ultimately it was “the right thing to do” due to safety concerns and rising COVID-19 cases.

But for Nowshin’s family, convocation is a “big deal,” as she is a first-generation student—meaning she is the first person to obtain a  post-secondary degree or certificate in her immediate family. 

Nowshin’s parents immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh just three years before she was born. Like many immigrant families, they were looking forward to her graduation for the many years leading up to it. 

She said the cancelled ceremony meant missing out on an opportunity to show her appreciation for her parents. 

“[I wanted to] show them that I’m thanking them for this,” she said. “This is my thank you for everything that they’ve supported me in.”

“It’s not the same feeling, opening up a letter and being like, ‘ah, here is the diploma’ versus being in a cap and gown and then being able to take pictures with [friends and family],” said Nowshin. 

“The celebration gives them a window of insight into the experience of their [child] that they may not normally get”

Nathan Daun-Barnett, an associate professor and the chair of the department of educational leadership and policy at the University of Buffalo, said there are a few conditions that can contribute to graduation being such a culminating event. 

According to Daun-Barnett, challenges like navigating finances and racial or ethnic identity are more common with first-generation students, making the completion of the degree more significant.  

“First-gen intersects with other identities as well,” said Daun-Barnett, who specializes in college access, financial aid policy and college transition. “Often, first-gen students come from families with more modest means. If you have fewer economic privileges, it may be challenging because you might have to work while you’re in school.” 

He said it is important to acknowledge the identity of a first-gen student also intersects with class, race and gender.

Daun-Barnett said one challenge that’s specific to first-generation students is access to education resources and information because parents are often not familiar with the college choice process.

“First-generation students often won’t realize that their experience in K-12 education may have been different than the students they’re surrounded by,” he said. 

Using himself as an example, Daun-Barnett explained that as a first-generation student, he planned to attend an engineering program in college, but his parents didn’t know they had to get him on an “advanced math track,” which he would’ve started in middle school.

While he started college having only taken pre-calculus, all of his peers had already taken calculus. “If that’s the case, and you grade on a curve, then I’m always going to be at the low end of the curve. I couldn’t figure out why I was doing so poorly compared to other students,” he said.

“Looking back, it makes sense now,” Daun-Barnett continued. “There are things that [our] parents may not have known earlier in our educational career, that would’ve had an effect on our success in college.”

He said convocation gives parents this sense of pride that their child has accomplished something they have never done.

“Parents don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the experience until you get to that celebration—it’s abstract to them,” adding that parents have been told attending university is important as it may bring their child better opportunities. 

“But the celebration gives them a window of insight into the experience of their [child] that they may not normally get.”

“When you come together and you see all of these people celebrating, you see faculty on stage in their ceremonial garb…there is a gravity and a weight to that,” Daun-Barnett added.

“[Graduation] is a really important accomplishment, that is worthy of celebration.”

“It’s like a [lost] sense of pride…They sacrificed a lot to come here, so they kind of expect their children to be more successful than they are”

For Siobhan Liu and her family, the end of the last school year was strange.

Liu, a 2020 science and chemistry graduate, wasn’t the only person in her family to finish school last spring. Both her younger brother and sister had their college and high school graduation ceremonies cancelled, too. 

Since her parents found out about her siblings’ cancelled ceremonies before hers, Liu said they weren’t surprised, however, they were still “disappointed” and “upset.”

“It’s like a [lost] sense of pride…They sacrificed a lot to come here, so they kind of expect their children to be more successful than they are,” said Liu.

Daun-Barnett said firstborn children who are also first-generation students can feel a certain level of responsibility to figure things out on their own and set a good example for their younger siblings behind them, because of the sacrifices their parents have made to give them the opportunity of post-secondary education.

Liu’s parents came to Canada as refugees from China “to start a better life” and weren’t able to attain much formal schooling growing up. 

Her father dropped out of elementary school, and her mother didn’t get to complete high school, so when she began university “it was more excitement than anything.”

Fanya Wu, a doctoral student of Daun-Barnett, is researching the college choices of immigrant and international students. Wu explained that another reason graduation is a big deal for the whole family is that many first-generation students have parents who are non-native English speakers. 

“They [are helping] their family navigate this new land,” said Wu. “Graduation is not only to help themselves accumulate capital, it’s for their whole family to live a better life.”

Liu said her parents always had expectations that she would go to university and that her younger siblings would follow her path. 

“This is what they’ve been kind of planning for since they moved here,” said Liu. “They always wanted us to get a better education, so we would have a better life.”

Without a graduation ceremony, Liu didn’t get the chance to celebrate with her family. She didn’t attend the virtual spring ceremony but rather joined a small Zoom call with some of her professors and peers, many of whom were also grieving the cancellation of their final thesis presentations. 

“We were just watching videos and highlight reels of the past four years and things like that. So [the department] did something but you know, it’s not the same as being able to cross the stage and actually shake hands with president Lachemi,” said Liu.

“The moment’s passed and the feeling is lost”  

Despite the cancellation of convocation, Nowshin did get to celebrate thanks to her extended family, who threw her and her parents a surprise graduation get-together—following public health protocols—over the summer. 

“I cried throughout the whole thing,” Nowshin said. “I realized how much this graduation meant when I saw my dad because within five minutes of him realizing what was happening, he started crying, and I’ve never seen him cry like that.”

Nowshin said she feels really lucky to have received that sort of closure from her family. As for attending a potential in-person ceremony in the future, she said she feels “indifferent,” as the “moment’s passed and the feeling is lost.”  

Liu also expressed disinterest in attending an in-person ceremony.

Having worked in the convocation office herself as a ceremonials assistant, Liu said holding ceremonies for that many graduating classes would be  a “logistical nightmare.” 

According to the convocation website, all spring and fall 2020 graduates will “be given the opportunity to cross the convocation stage” and the university will invite all 2020 graduates to participate in upcoming ceremonies. 

The university also plans on sending out “graduation boxes” to 2020 graduates. The box is expected to include a blue graduation cap, 2020 tassel and an alumni welcome package.

Lachemi said it’s too soon to say whether or not spring 2021 convocation would be held in-person or what it will look like, but as soon as a decision is made on spring 2021 ceremonies, it will be shared with the Ryerson community.

Nowshin was looking forward to receiving her iron ring—a rite of passage for engineering students entering the workforce to remind them to work ethically and responsibly. She said her mother often asks if it’s come in the mail yet, but she’s had to tell her no every time. Nowshin and her classmates plan on attending the ring ceremony, if not convocation, depending on which events end up taking place.

“If I’m already full into the workforce and it’s over a year later, I don’t know how motivated I will feel,’’ said Nowshin. “It will really depend on my parents as well. It’s a once in a lifetime event.”

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