Celebrating Commencement with First-Gen Families

Lehigh hosts luncheon to honor first-generation graduates and their families.

First-generation graduates

First-generation graduates celebrated Commencement at a family luncheon held in their honor. More photos of the 2019 First Generation Commencement Celebration can be viewed here.

Commencement is a big day for any graduate—the culmination of years of hard work and a celebration of pride in a dream fully realized. That is particularly true for students who are the first in their families to earn a college degree. On May 20, Lehigh hosted first-generation graduates and their families at a post-Commencement luncheon to celebrate, honor and welcome them into the 85,000-strong Lehigh alumni family.

Kiana Nieves '19

Kiana Nieves ’19 spoke at the first-gen luncheon about her parents’ sacrifices and her Lehigh experiences.

First-gen graduate Kiana Nieves ’19 spoke about the sacrifices her parents made to help her get an education and experience all that came along with her bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Lehigh.

“These last four years have not been easy, but with the support of my family, I have been able to do things I didn’t think were possible,” she said. “I worked hard because I had to make my parents proud, to show them that their sacrifices were worth something.”

Edward Ramos ’89, member of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees, the Black and Latino Alumni Network for Community and Equity (BALANCE), and a first-gen student himself, also emphasized the sacrifices his parents made.

Edward Ramos '89

Edward Ramos ’89, Lehigh Board of Trustees member, described his experiences as a first-generation graduate and shared advice with the 2019 first gens and their families.

"I remember my graduation day very well, and I cried tears of joy all day. Why? I thought about the sacrifices my mom and dad made. I cried thinking about the incredible amount of pressure that I had on my shoulders for four years, not to let anyone down. I felt like I was graduating for all those generations of hard workers in my family who never got this far,” Ramos said.

“If you are like me, somewhere, somehow, somebody told you that you can’t take the elevator to the top, but you also know that every tall building has steps. And you started climbing and ascending. And you rose; you fought; you persevered; you believed in yourself. And you know what else you did? You graduated from Lehigh University!” he said to exuberant cheering from the audience.

Ramos gave the graduates a final homework assignment: to think of the five people in their lives most responsible for their being there that day.

“Go back and thank them. Be the ripple in the water that multiplies this celebration today and make it last forever in someone else’s memory as well.”

Lehigh President John D. Simon ’19P thanked George White, managing director for student access and success, for his work with first-gen students and for coordinating the luncheon to celebrate their graduation. Simon also recognized members of the university’s F1RST club (First-Generation Initiative Represented by Students and Teachers) in the audience, and said, “We couldn’t be more proud of the work you’re doing to promote a supportive and more inclusive community here at Lehigh.”

Kevin Ly ’19, bioengineering graduate and F1RST club founder and president, said he appreciated the luncheon as an expression of Lehigh’s recognition of the adversity first-gen students face and its support of them.

“I hope the increasing number of first-generation graduates at Lehigh will serve as proof to current first-gen students that anything is possible if they put in the hard work and take advantage of the amazing opportunities Lehigh has to offer,” Ly said.

Lehigh is committed to attracting, enrolling, and supporting the best and brightest students. The university has made it a top priority of GO: The Campaign for Lehigh to raise $50 million for access and success programs.

Story by Cynthia Tintorri

Photos by John Kish IV

Lehigh’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity office supports Lehigh’s mission to attract, recruit, and support first-generation students. Programs and services include:

The Lehigh University Student Scholars Institute (LUSSI) — A summer pre-orientation program designed to help students learn about services at Lehigh, develop strong study and time management skills, and more.

Passport to Success — A year-long program to provide structured support for students to explore and engage in a  variety of high-impact learning experiences.

Mentor Collective at Lehigh — A peer mentorship program designed to help first-year students make the most of their college experience.

F1RST — A club to promote an inclusive community for first-generation and working-class students at Lehigh, providing an environment for members to voice their concerns, support each other, and carry out initiatives on campus.

The First Generation Residential Community — A themed residential community exclusively for first-generation college students, including a resident assistant/Gryphon, community coordinator, and other first-generation students of all ages.

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