As UC Davis struggles to retain more Latino students, 254 graduates crossed the finish line Sunday at the 32nd annual Chicana/o Latina/o Graduation Celebration at the Mondavi Center.
The event means a tremendous amount for their classmates and younger siblings, coordinator Alma Martinez said.
“They can say, ‘I saw my big brother or big sister cross that stage and I will, too, one day,’ ” Martinez said. “A lot of them are the first students in their family graduating from a college or university, so it’s not just an individual accomplishment. It’s a huge family accomplishment.”
The university’s top graduate, Lucydalila Cedillo, was among the students who took the stage Sunday.
She grew up in East Los Angeles and had to help her mom collect recyclables to make ends meet. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, never went past seventh grade, and her dad, a musician, never let her forget it, she said.
Cedillo has earned a full scholarship to Harvard University, where she plans to get her doctorate in education.
University officials are hoping such stories become more commonplace.
The number of Chicano/Latino students has grown over the past decade from about 12 percent of undergraduates in 2006 to 22 percent last year, university spokeswoman Julia Ann Easley said.
But nearly 10 percent of Latino students don’t return for their second year and less than 40 percent come back for a third year, according to UC Davis data from 2003 to 2013.
That’s why the university is getting ready to open a success center this fall that focuses on Chicano/Latino students, Easley said.
Some in attendance Sunday said a combination of factors – from needing to leave school to help support their families to what they perceive as an anti-Latino bias on campus – make graduating a challenge.
Fewer than half of all Latino students graduate in four years compared with about 60 percent of all freshman, university figures show.
Students who made it to Sunday’s celebration said they were proud and joyful.
Sabina Torres said her love of education “flourished immensely” after seeing her mother from Michoacán, Mexico, “work two or even three jobs to hold our family together.”
Torres, the first in her family to graduate from college, plans to tell her 8-month-old son, “Mami did it! She graduated from UC Davis!”
In the top row of the Mondavi Center, a group of friends and relatives cheered Torres on, including her brother Elio Torres of Folsom, who held her infant son.
“I’m proud of her accomplishments,” said Elio Torres, 24, who works in a restaurant to support his wife and two kids. “I’m working on that myself.”
Jenny Garcia of San Jose was one of dozens of younger students who came out to honor the graduates. She said that along with the challenges of navigating the academic system, some Davis students have had to contend with racism on campus.
“You can see the words ‘Build A Wall’ outside the Student Community Center and Hart Hall,” she said.
“We’re being told it’s just freedom of speech,” added her friend Stacy Ruiz, 21, a political science major.
Claudia Janeth Rios Manzo, one of two student keynote speakers, told the packed house, “I come from the leaf blower, the weed eater, the lawn mower being pushed by my father’s hands.”
Manzo, a sociology and Chicano studies major from Jalisco, Mexico, wants to become a teacher.
“Despite our immigrant status, my parents instilled in me the value of education and never restricted my wings.”
Her voice breaking, she added: “I am eternally grateful to all the previous generations of undocumented students who have had the courage to come out of the shadows and pave the way for students like me. I proudly carry the resilience of my people.”