LIFESTYLE

Harvard will hold its first-ever Latino graduation

Harvard University Medical School graduates celebrate at commencement ceremonies by tossing giant pills in the air.

Harvard University Medical School graduates celebrate at commencement ceremonies by tossing giant pills in the air.  (2008 Getty Images)

When Erika Carlsen celebrates the completion of her graduate work at Harvard’s Divinity School on Wednesday, her mom and dad will be by her side. Literally.

Her parents will present her with a crimson and white stole in the first ever Latin@ graduation ceremony (a modern spelling embracing gender neutrality) to be held at the Harvard University Science Center on Wednesday. She, along with 65 other graduating students, will receive their diplomas at graduation events for their prospective schools but, they say, this celebration is emblematic of greater achievements.

“Harvard is a hard environment for most to transition especially if they are the first generation to go to college,” Erika said, explaining what it’s like learning to navigate another culture.

But a group of graduates and undergraduates from an array of disciplines united to provide support, encourage change from the administration and, in this ceremony, bring a piece of their heritage to Cambridge. Each student will receive their stoles from two people who are important to them and, unlike other ceremonies, there is no limit to the number of guests that can cheer on the graduates. (They expect 400 people all told.)

“This ceremony gives us a chance to make this place feel a little more like home. That’s what this ceremony is trying to do. It’s a chance to make Harvard ours,” Carlsen said.

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The graduation is a student-led venture patterned after others at schools across the country, such as University of California, Berkeley. It is funded by donations from Harvard’s colleges and graduate schools, professors, alumni and other school groups. Harvard is providing the students space on campus to hold the ceremony.

“Some organizations have been fantastic, and they gave more than we expected. Other organizations, they were not ready to embrace what we’re trying to do here. Maybe there were not as many Latino students in their programs,” said Gerard Ochoa, who spent his sabbatical at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He will return to his administrative job at a liberal arts college in Oregon.

While this is the first event of its kind at Harvard, other groups have student-run commencement events as well, including African-American and LGBT students, said Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman.

The Hispanic enrollment at Harvard has been increasing the past few years. Of the acceptance letters sent out to undergraduates in 2014, 13 percent went to Hispanics. The school has been seeking a diverse student body since it announced a plan in 2004 to attract high-achieving students from low-income families. The school will foot the bill for students whose families make less than $65,000.

Other ethnic groups have also expressed concerns about Harvard's policies. This month, a coalition of more than 60 groups filed a complaint with the federal government concerning the admission criteria for Asian students. Citing research, the group alleges that prospective Asian students have to outscore other racial groups on the SAT, which they say serves to lower the number of Asians who apply. The school says that about 20 percent of its admitted students are Asian.

Latino students feel that having a graduation only for them would get the administration’s attention – and implore them to address issues they care about, like hiring more Latino professors and creating a Latino studies program.

“I think the Latino graduation is what starts as a celebration. We’re here, we’ve always been here and we’re going to take time to do something special,” said Julio Ricardo Varela, a Harvard alum who is the digital media director of Futuro Media Group and founder of the newsite, latinorebels.com.

“Our voices can grow louder and we can un-click the mute button," said Varela, who is serving as co-masters of ceremony for the bilingual event. "We can say we are a force in this country and we will be a force at Harvard – get ready.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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