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‘I did it:’ University of Illinois at Chicago graduate reflects on hardships she overcame to earn degree

“It’s not your common graduation, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Hey, after a pandemic, after this past year and a half, I’ll take it,’” Jeyra Rivera Arocho said after she walked across the stage Saturday.

Jeyra Rivera Arocho, who received her engineering degree, waves to the camera on graduation day at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum in the Little Italy neighborhood, Saturday morning, May 8, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Jeyra Rivera Arocho was beaming as she waltzed across the flower-lined stage in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Forum. At one point, she enthusiastically waved at her parents and cousin, who flew in from Pennsylvania for the occasion.

This year’s commencement ceremony at UIC looked different than in years past because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most area colleges and universities are hosting virtual commencement ceremonies this month, UIC offered a more intimate celebration, with graduates being able to sign up for a time slot to walk across the stage as up to three of their closest loved ones looked on.

DePaul University is offering a similar event for its graduates, beginning May 19.

One UIC graduate called the small in-person ceremony “robotic,” and another said it felt “weird.” But that didn’t take away the emotions Arocho, 24, felt when she got her degree, which she earned despite many hardships, including homelessness.

“I feel like it hasn’t settled yet to be honest, even after walking across the stage and everything,” said Arocho, who graduated with a degree in engineering. “It’s definitely ... like a symbolic closure of this chapter, and I have to kind of give myself a pat on the shoulder because after all, I did it. So yeah, this is a huge deal for me.”

Jeyra Rivera Arocho, who received her engineering degree, poses for a picture with her father Jaime Garcia, her mother Jessica Arocho and her cousin Lillian Rivera at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Arocho came to Chicago in September 2017 with nothing but a duffle bag and a few pairs of clothes. It was supposed to be a mini-vacation meant to last only five days. But she “got stuck here” after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean, devastating her native Puerto Rico and many of the islands nearby.

Arocho went weeks without knowing what had happened to her family after the deadly Category 5 hurricane struck her hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. “That was very nerve-racking,” she said.

When the temperatures started to drop in Chicago, Arocho said she had only jeans and a T-shirt with limited spending money. She worried about whether she would be able to afford a coat.

Arocho, who had already attended three years of college in Puerto Rico, got an internship at an architectural firm in the city. Ultimately, with encouragement from her boss, she got into the UIC.

After starting classes in spring 2018, Arocho said she hit rock bottom. On top of starting to feel overwhelmed by the coursework, Arocho was homeless. She would shower at the school’s gym and occasionally snuck into the school buildings for a safe place to stay overnight.

“School was not my priority,” Arocho said. “I was just trying to see where I was going to crash, what I was going to eat and that type of stuff.”

Arocho was on the verge of dropping out when Gerry Smith, the director of UIC’s Equity and Inclusion in Engineering Program, reached out to her after noticing she had been absent from class.

“I broke down and explained to him what was going on,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m about to drop out because this doesn’t make any sense to me anymore ... I lost my home, school is not my priority.’”

Smith and the Latin American Recruitment and Education Services (LARES) got Arocho the help she needed, in terms of finances and also with tutoring. Arocho credits Smith and LARES for helping her make it to Saturday’s stage.

Her advice for other people who find themselves going through a rough patch in life?

“Make sure to find your village,” said Arocho, who plans to stay in Chicago and work for CannonDesign as a plumbing engineer. “These types of accomplishments are not a thing that happen ... it’s not a solo effort, it really takes a community. And people need to find their village and their community as well.”

Saturday’s ceremony may not have been traditional, but Arocho was grateful for the experience.

“It was great. It was very quick. You go walk across the stage, take pictures, and that’s pretty much it,” she said. “It’s not your common graduation, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Hey, after a pandemic, after this past year and a half, I’ll take it.’”

Other graduates shared Arocho’s sentiment.

“I’ll take it,” said Vikram Saudagar, who earned a biomedical engineering degree and plans to go to medical school. “I would’ve loved to be with more people, but given everything that’s happened, it’s been an awesome way to end.”

Zainab Siddiqui, who finished her studies last May, waited an entire year to walk across the stage.

“It was definitely worth it,” said Siddiqui, a business analyst. “A lot of people were like, ‘Oh you already graduated, started a job, what’s the point now?’ But I think it’s a form of closure for me to finally end on a good note and not just virtually.”