San Diego’s First Annual Community Graduation Celebration: Graduation in the Barrio

“The purpose of this event was to celebrate the academic accomplishments of historically underrepresented, first generational, financially-disadvantaged students from underserved communities”

Alberto “Beto” Vasquez, Co-founder of the First Annual Community Graduation Celebration

On June 11th, 2016, communities of San Diego came together to share in one of the biggest accomplishments many of our students do not have the opportunity to celebrate – graduation. When we think about this big day, we usually hear about Grad Night at Disneyland, big graduation bashes, or the shiny new car in the driveway. But in the middle of the barrio we get to see the presence of what education looks like, familia. When I think of community, I think of family because even though we might not all agree or have the same views, in the end we stand together. The First Annual Community Graduation was a perfect example of what  familia feels and looks like. This celebration was free to the community and consisted of a delicious dinner, graduate recognition, resource tables, and we danced the evening away to DJ Wicho and DJ Beto Perez.

Many students that took the stage on this evening shared their heroic stories of challenges they faced while receiving their education. Some of the stories heard that night were about the experiences of first-generation students from our local community colleges and universities. They shared the space with high school graduates who allowed them to talk about the barriers they were able to overcome. Some of these that they faced were lack of financial stability, college readiness, and low academic self-esteem. Listening to the graduates talk about using these barriers as tools to graduate began to lay the foundation for our high school students who were undecided on furthering their education.

Another issue impacting our communities that was acknowledged by fellow graduates was the school to prison pipeline. The co-founder of the event Alberto “Beto” Vasquez asked, “Why are there more Latinos and African Americans in the prison system than those enrolled in higher education?” Vasquez was formerly incarcerated and received his master’s degree in biology earlier that day from UCSD. We also had members of the Urban Scholars Union, a student organization lead by those who are formerly incarcerated at San Diego City College, graduate that evening. The Urban Scholars Union also co-sponsored the event. We are seeing those who are most impacted by the school to prison pipeline fighting for their college degrees to prove that there should be more educational opportunities for underrepresented communities and changing the narrative through the “prison to school pipeline.”

As a woman of color who has been impacted by the criminal justice system and a first generation college graduate, it was an honor to share the stage with 69 other graduates who have faced similar barriers. As we were each acknowledged for the dedication we had put into obtaining our diplomas, I was left with an extreme sense of empowerment. I want to thank all who invested in us and made every moment of the celebration memorable. We did it Class of 2016!

“Clase de 2016”

e3 Civic High, San Diego H.S., Lincoln H.S., Urban Corps Charter, Morse H.S., King-Chavez H.S. JCCS, San Diego City College, University of California, San Diego, 

San Diego State University

What do you think?

The following two tabs change content below.

Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales, Co-founder and President of the Urban Scholars Union, a student organization that advocates for students with lived experience, committed to empowering all cultures transitioning from incarceration to education. She graduated from San Diego City College with a Liberal Art degree and has plans to use education as her foundation to advocate for those coming out of the criminal justice system. At 15 years old Maria Elena dropped out of the high school but went back and got her GED at the age of 21. A single mother of 5 children, she has managed to pave the way for her children and to teach them the importance of receiving an education at any age. She has also used her education to become a community leader in San Diego and is currently a JustLeadership USA Leading with Conviction 2016 Fellow, which is an advanced leadership training for formerly incarcerated, mid-senior level leaders with a specific and proven track record in advocacy and community organizing.

More Comments