From Prison to Graduation: I Earned it, But Could I Own it?

Sometimes it is hard to celebrate yourself. Maybe you feel like an imposter. A fake. Like you don’t deserve it. Or maybe it is because you don’t remember what happiness feels like anymore and it scares you. What if it goes away? You’re afraid to lose it so you have become so unfamiliar with it, that you don’t see it when it is there. Missing it once it is too late and it is gone. We self-sabotage without knowing, a default setting that may come from not being fully healed from our past traumas. So we project.

At the age of 25, I was convicted of a non-violent offense for a crime I committed when I was 18. A first-time offender, I was sentenced to four years. This became a part of my identity. I was boxed in and confined, literally and metaphorically. I was marked. My Scarlet Letter.

I was full of reasons as to why I should not participate in my California State University Northridge graduation ceremony. Who’s going to even show up? I didn’t want to be reminded of what I did not have. Parents. A supportive family. To be honest, I felt alone, and graduation was going to bring all of those feelings to the surface. I wasn’t ready for it. I had buried it all deep within me, or so I thought. They were living in my chest.

Besides my inner struggles, I was also struggling financially.  I couldn’t afford to graduate.

As a survivor of multiple forms of violence and trauma, there was a lot I was still coming to terms with. For years I rejected parts of me instead if learning how to dance with them. Among the things I’d buried were the two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement.

What are you doing after graduation? I felt boxed in again. I applied for jobs on campus and was disqualified because of my background. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, much less what I would do after graduation.

I had no roadmap. My future seemed bleak, hopeless. Nah, I’m good with graduation. I was raw, unable to heal from one wound and already nursing another. All of this simply served to deepen my insecurities and fears. I didn’t know what my next move would be. I was figuring it out.

As the date approached, I got into my head more and more. At times I was excited and, at others, I just didn’t know what to feel.

Imagine being the first “Homegirl” to graduate from Homeboy Industries with a bachelor’s degree. Huge for sure–but in my mind I was a lousy student. I froze when asked to write a literature review. I didn’t know how to ask for help or where to begin. I stopped going to class for a bit. Other students were working way harder and were more deserving. Maybe academia wasn’t for me.

If you want different results then you gotta do things differently.  I reached out. I started seeing my therapist at Homeboy again occasionally. It helped.

An amazing thing was happening to me, but it was clouded by doubts and make-believe obstacles. Maybe I could have been a better student, but I should not have allowed all those dark thoughts to discredit my accomplishment or to cheat me out of this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. In spite of all the good that was coming my way, they did, however.

Mija, after all the fire you have been through, you are graduating. This was a major achievement that at the moment I could not grasp. I didn’t participate in GradFest or submit my application and all the paperwork needed to walk across the stage. I missed all the deadlines and even had to take an incomplete for my thesis class. You guessed it, that damned literature review.

I saw my college advisor at a poetry reading on campus, the same guy that told me there was no way I would be walking across that stage in May of 2016.

When I first met with him I had just been accepted to CSUN. I was late to my appointment and had been on campus only once before. I took my then 2-year-old son with me to my advisement appointment, making the trek from South Central to the Valley. Logan had fallen asleep in the car and in transitioning him to his stroller he woke up in a horrible “oh no you didn’t just wake me from this nap” mood, screaming for his Hulk and Spider Man toys that were somewhere in the backseat.

From there we scrambled to figure out where this office was.

We finally made it to his office only to be told to come back because I was 15 minutes late. “Nah, homie. I am not driving back.” We busted out the Cheerios and sat in his office, we waited. He finally met with me.

I explained my circumstances and asked what I needed to graduate the following spring. “It’s not going to happen. You are on academic probation. You need 18 units, and you need to pass the upper division writing exam. There is no way you can walk by Spring of 2016,” he told me. Logan dropped Cheerios all over his office floor, I didn’t even try to pick them up. I walked out feeling overwhelmed.

As I stood before him again, I was off of academic probation, had passed the exam and was only in need of three units, which still made me eligible to walk. He asked me if I had submitted all the necessary forms for graduation. Not only did I miss the deadlines, I didn’t have the funds. “Come see me,” he said. I went the next day. By then he had set all the wheels in motion and moved mountains to ensure I walked across the stage. But I didn’t really want to.

How could this guy, who once told me it couldn’t be done, all of a sudden want me walk? I sat in his office once more. This time he wanted me to walk, he was happy and nearly in tears as he checked off boxes while doing my grad check. “Wow, Lilia! I can’t believe it. You did it!” he exclaimed, getting up from his chair with tears in his eyes and giving me the tightest hug, saying how proud he was of me. “You have to walk, I will make it happen.” And he did.

Homeboy Industries paid for my cap and gown and degree. CSUN gave them 50 tickets to the ceremony, way more than the regular seven each graduate customarily gets. It was a big deal and everyone knew it. Me still, not so much. All I saw were the roadblocks. The doors that were closed and some that were never open. The uncertainty. The unknown is scary.

Everyone came out to cheer me on.

Much later, I came to realize that it wasn’t about me. It was for others like me and creating a pathway for them. The ones who didn’t think they would make it this far, much less have a small army cheering them on. It was about the importance of us being reflected in and a part of higher education. For Homegirls everywhere to say, “Yo tambien! Because Homegirls get degrees too!”

My incarceration no longer solely defines who I am or what I will be and I had to own that.

We are not our past. We are not our mistakes, and we are not defined by the worst things that have been a part of our journey. I wish I would have embraced and welcomed the scary and the unknown, but back then I didn’t know how to. So if you’re having a hard a time celebrating yourself and your accomplishments, do it. Celebrate. Cry. Delight in it all. You’ve made it. You deserve it. You are worthy.

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Lily Gonzalez

Lily Gonzalez

Lily Gonzalez was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, the daughter of a single, immigrant father. Lily strives to make her father’s dream of a family of college graduates come true. She is a product of LAUSD Schools and a graduate of South Gate High School.

She is a recent cancer survivor and through some years of adversity has risen above all her recent challenges. Lily is a Homeboy Industries graduate and full-time student at California State University, Northridge. She has continued to live her life in South Los Angeles with her two children. She works to show her children that anything can be done with hard work, determination and perseverance even in the face of unimaginable challenges. Her daughter is in a Charter School and she is working to find the right Preschool program for her youngest child.

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