Muchas Gracias y Viva Toreros!
by Kelly Knufken

painting by Alisa Burke

Gratitude. That’s what it’s all about at the annual celebration for USD graduates of Latino descent and their families. “It’s not just my degree,” says Andrea Fuentez who’s earning her bachelor’s in psychology. “I couldn’t have done it alone under any circumstances. And because of the family I have, I never had to. It’s really like my family’s accomplishment.”

She and the other graduating seniors will get a chance to express those feelings to their immediate and extended families during the 11th Annual Chicana/o Latina/o Graduation Ceremony.

“I know that I don’t thank them enough, and I definitely don’t ever thank them publicly,” she says. “I’m really grateful for this rare opportunity to do that.”

This celebration of family and USD will be on May 27, the evening before graduates participate in the main commencement.

“It’s meant to add to, not take away from, traditional graduation festivities,” says Guadalupe Corona, director of the United Front Multicultural Center, an organizer along with MeChA and AChA. “They are being validated by the institution for their success as a first-generation community of USD. For them, most are the first to not only graduate college, but the first to attend college.”

Because that makes graduation such a huge event, Latino graduation can cement the bond of a parent with a school they may have visited only to drop off the student four years earlier.

It appears to be working. Fuentez’s dad, Phillip Fuentez, has attended the ceremony twice.

“The event is something that is very emotional and rewarding,” he says. “Parents are thankful the student is graduating from such a prestigious school, and that the student did remember the family’s sacrifices.”

The ceremony is a terrific recruitment tool for the university, according to Corona. “The graduates’ nieces, brothers and sisters see the campus, and they make a very personal connection that gives the university a whole different feel for communities that might not have had experience with USD before.”

Each graduate is allowed to invite seven family members, and even that can cause conflicts. Fuentez wasn’t sure how the limit would shake out among her immediate family of six, plus an extended network of other relatives. “I told them, ’I’m not deciding,’” she says.

This year’s ceremony may draw close to double the number of graduating seniors from last year’s count of 25. With the event bursting at the seams in the Main Dining hall, organizers have an eye toward moving to the Jenny Craig Pavilion next year. The graduation festivities include dinner, short speeches by students and a slide show featuring pictures of the graduates as they’ve grown up — another special touch for the parents. Graduates wear special sashes in USD colors. Phillip Fuentez is prepared for his happiness to spill over as his oldest child reaches a major milestone. “I’m ready. I’ve got my tissues,” he says. “Many of the graduates say, ’I said I wasn’t going to cry,’ but they do. ”

He says the feelings the event evokes are a natural for the campus: “When I go to USD, it’s like that old saying, ’Mi casa es su casa.’”