Edith Mendez watched a slideshow of photos from her college experience, read a Spanish quote she handpicked to thank her family and listened to a speech delivered by her college dean Saturday.
But the 2020 graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago did so from the backyard of her family’s Berwyn home, not on campus with the momentous ceremony she’d always imagined.
“It was a little bit strange — maybe, in some ways, disappointing,” said Mendez, a first-generation college grad. “Just because I didn’t get to walk across the stage.”
She joined more than 5,000 UIC students — and tens of thousands more at other Illinois schools — left with no choice but to celebrate their graduation with an online ceremony in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
UIC still plans to hold an in-person commencement for their 2020 class sometime later this year, but with the state’s stay-at-home order banning large gatherings, the virtual stand-in will have to do for now.
And for Mendez, like millions of students nationwide, the COVID-19 shutdown has disrupted far more than just graduation.
Mendez and two of her classmates were the first to come out of UIC’s revamped Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education program, which resumed in 2017 after a long hiatus.
The culmination of Mendez’s UIC experience — a student-teaching tenure at Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, where she mentored sophomores and seniors in art classes — was nonetheless cut short by the pandemic.
“I didn’t really get to say goodbye,” she said. “I knew things that they were going through, but we also got to learn from each other. I feel like maybe they could see themselves in me, just because there’s not a lot of teachers of color or women of color that teach in Chicago Public Schools.”
Mendez entered UIC eyeing a career in medicine, but an elective art class she opened her eyes to a field that fulfilled her creativity, her desire to create positive change and her struggles with her own identity.
“I wanted to... give younger students the opportunity of taking art courses that I didn’t have when I was in high school,” she said. “It’s really therapeutic to do so, [because] art is a way to figure out or reflect on your experiences and find your identity and go back to your roots. Because when you are a first-generation [college student] and a Latina, it’s hard to connect when you have these two sides of yourself.”
Her career passion as an art teacher cemented, Mendez has already been accepted into Chicago Public Schools’ early offer program, which guarantees her a job somewhere within the district next school year.
She’s still applying for specific positions, ranging from elementary to high-school level, while planning out how to earn a master’s degree in Latino Studies at some point down the road.
While her final months as an undergraduate might not have gone as planned, Mendez says she finds positives even in that inconvenience.
First, experiencing online classes as a student could help her teach them in the future — perhaps from the get-go, with no guarantee on when in-person classes will be able to resume anywhere in the state as the pandemic unfolds.
And second, “if this wasn’t happening, my dad is constantly working, so he probably wouldn’t have been able to make it [to my graduation],” she said. “But because of this virus happening, he was able to be here, and friends and family were able to congratulate me.”
Mendez is also going to order a cap and gown soon, despite knowing she might not ever get to wear them onstage.
Because those tangible symbols, as thousands of other 2020 college graduates are discovering, are sometimes the only things making the accomplishment feel real these days.
“This all feels surreal because it’s not in-person and it’s not in the traditional way, but it’ll be really exciting,” Mendez said. “That’s finally when it’s going to hit me that I graduated.”