Courtesy of Kerry Martinez
Traditional graduation ceremonies and celebrations have been upended this spring for Cal State Los Angeles senior Kerry Martinez and other graduates across the state.

Leading up to her graduation this spring from Cal State Los Angeles, Kerry Martinez envisioned sharing the moment with her mother.

She expected to walk across the stage during the university’s Raza Grad celebration, an intimate ceremony held for the university’s graduating Latino students. Her mom would be in attendance to share in a historic moment: Martinez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in child development, is the first in their family to earn a college degree. After the ceremony, they would gather with other family and friends at Martinez’s home in South Central Los Angeles for a catered party with tacos and birria, a Mexican dish often served during celebrations.

But Martinez and other college seniors have been forced to abandon their plans. The coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for seniors to participate in the usual celebrations and traditions including in-person commencement ceremonies, graduation trips and parties with friends and family. 

Many seniors have found new ways to celebrate, from having small ceremonies at their homes to staging commencements on video games. But other graduates are choosing not to commemorate their graduations at all, saying they can’t meaningfully replicate traditional celebrations. 

Martinez, who plans to become a teacher after earning her credential next year, called her experience graduating amid the pandemic “sweet and sour.” 

She was disappointed that her mom wasn’t able to see her walk across the stage. But Martinez did drive by her mom’s apartment building on a recent Sunday while wearing her cap and gown. Her mom lives on the fourth floor of the building and was able to look down from her window. 

Martinez then took photos in her cap and gown outside the house of Los Angeles resident Dayane Scott, an event planner who arranged her front yard with Class of 2020 decorations so graduates could stop by and take pictures. 

Martinez is planning a small barbecue with her husband and children, but she had to postpone plans for a much larger party with friends and extended family. 

“You’re proud of yourself and at the same time you get emotional because you have all this pride, all this accomplishment that you want to share with everybody, but you can’t,” Martinez said. 

Cal State Long Beach graduate Evelyn Orozco and her family salvaged an in-person commencement as best they could by staging a ceremony outside their house in South Central Los Angeles.

Evelyn Orozco

Cal State Long Beach graduate Evelyn Orozco

Wearing her cap and gown, Orozco, whose degree is in liberal studies, gave a speech in front of her parents, uncle, sister and brother-in-law. With her family members lined up in their yard, Orozco then shook hands and posed for pictures with each one, as if they were university administrators. 

She said having a ceremony at home with family made it “even more special” because they were the ones who supported her through five years of college. 

“They really helped me finish my journey and achieve my dreams. It kind of meant more than just shaking someone’s hand you don’t really know,” she said. 

Other students found ways to celebrate virtually with fellow graduates. Cal State LA graduates Jasmine Romero and Ivan Carrillo organized a ceremony using Animal Crossing, a popular video game on the Nintendo Switch.

The game allows users to create their own islands and visit islands created by other players. Romero’s sister invited Romero, Carrillo and two other graduating seniors to her island, which she decorated to look like a Cal State LA commencement was being held there. She built a stage with a podium and walls that featured Cal State LA’s logos. 

The graduates dressed their characters in graduation caps and gowns and custom Cal State LA clothes. They each walked across the stage and gave their own speeches. 

Romero said she initially didn’t want to do anything to commemorate her graduation, but changed her mind after reflecting on her path to the completion of her studies. She transferred from East Los Angeles College to Cal State LA and “felt like a floater” when she first arrived. It wasn’t until last fall that she felt at home at the university after getting involved with a marketing club and other student groups.

“I realized I had done a lot of work and it’s been a long journey for myself. I wanted to do something,” Romero said. 

Jasmine Romero

Cal State LA graduates Jasmine Romero and Ivan Carrillo organized a commencement ceremony on the popular Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing.

Other seniors across the state chose not to do much to mark their graduations, determining that it wouldn’t be possible to reproduce the excitement of the traditional celebrations. 

Jet Renslo, a senior at UC Davis, plans to watch the university’s virtual commencement on June 12 with family. “And that’s basically it” for how he will celebrate, he said.

Renslo said he had been looking forward to shaking hands on the commencement stage with UC Davis Chancellor Gary May and hanging out afterward with his roommates and other friends he went through college with from the university’s finance and investment club. 

“I’ve been working my whole life to get this degree pretty much and it would have been nice to have something official in person to end it all,” Renslo said.

The circumstances around graduation have similarly been a “big letdown” for Cal State Northridge graduate David Montiel. Before the pandemic, he was going to buy himself a gold watch, a gold chain and a new suit that he could wear to job interviews. But now that feels unnecessary, since any interviews he lands will likely be conducted virtually.

Montiel was also planning a post-graduation trip to Las Vegas with classmates, but that, too, is off the table.

“For me, there’s nothing to look forward to other than receiving my diploma, which is also just going to come in the mail. So it’s like I don’t really want to do anything,” he said. 

Some students, including Martinez from Cal State LA, said that once it’s safe, they still intend to have the full-blown celebrations they initially planned. 

Martinez said she was already deep into planning her party before the pandemic arrived. She and her sister-in-law were in the middle of creating centerpieces, putting together party favors and decorating around her house. 

Once public health officials say it’s safe to again have large gatherings, Martinez says she’ll have that party so she can finally share her accomplishment with family.

“I’ll be like, ‘OK, it’s party time,’” she said. 

Leslie Rojas, a student at Cal State Long Beach and a contributing reporter to the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps, contributed reporting.

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