Parents Joining Their Kids on Stage at Graduation: Embracing the Spirit of Community

When Yanelit Madriz Zarate walked across the stage at a University of California, Berkeley commencement ceremony recently, she pondered the ups and downs of her educational journey. From overcoming obstacles that led to her dropping out after her initial higher education attempt in the California State system, to advocating for herself when she re-enrolled at a community college, and the pride she felt upon transferring to Cal.

Reflecting on the pivotal role her parents, immigrants from Mexico with limited education, played in her graduation, Madriz Zarate was elated to have them by her side on stage.

For Madriz Zarate, participating in the age-old tradition of stage-crossing with loved ones during the university’s Chicanx Latinx graduation was a long-anticipated moment. She personalized the experience by performing a zapateado, a traditional Mexican dance, with her parents as her name was announced.

“It was a celebration for all three of us,” stated Madriz Zarate, a sociology major from San Pablo, California, who is also engaged in part-time disability rights advocacy. “Finally, our accomplishments are being recognized.”

Yanelit Madriz Zarate crosses the stage at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California, with her parents after doing a zapateado.

Similar to Madriz Zarate, countless graduates are the first in their families to pursue higher education. The number of first-generation applicants is rising at a rate more than double that of students with degree-holding parents, according to Common App data.

Despite this, many higher education institutions have been slow in offering adequate support tailored to the specific needs of first-generation students. Surveys indicate widespread mental health challenges among this demographic who express a desire for better support services and academic guidance.

Although symbolic, the emerging tradition of walking the stage with loved ones signals a shift in how colleges are interacting with students from diverse backgrounds. This trend celebrates family members’ contributions, often overlooked, in the academic journey of students. It aligns with the broader effort to make graduation ceremonies more culturally inclusive, exemplified by events like Umoja graduations, Lavender events, and blanketing ceremonies.

Such commemorations also underscore the significance of initiatives supporting these opportunities and the consequences when such programs face limitations. At the University of Texas at Austin, where funding for cultural graduation ceremonies was curtailed after a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion, students had to seek private funding for their anticipated Latinx event this spring.

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Cultural graduation ceremonies have witnessed a surge in popularity, spanning from Massachusetts to Hawaii. According to Carolyn Barber-Pierre, the assistant vice president for student affairs and multicultural affairs at Tulane University, these events aim to foster a sense of belonging for students with diverse identities.

Tulane hosts various affinity-group graduation ceremonies, like the Umoja event, where family members assist in adorning students with a stole representing their academic achievements and cultural pride. Loved ones are also invited to share reflections onstage during these ceremonies.

“This celebration embodies the collective efforts of faculty, staff, parents, and family members in ensuring each student’s success,” stated Barber-Pierre.

“It truly takes a community, and the community was there.”

Gerald Thrush, the vice dean of academic affairs at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, emphasized how family involvement remains a highlight of graduates’ commencement. The tradition at the medical school allows students to have two family members on stage to present their academic hood, a symbol akin to the stole but draped over the back.

Thrush described the visible nervousness of students when shaking hands with dignitaries on stage, quickly replaced by joy upon seeing their loved ones nearby. 

“The overwhelming joy and support from the families are immensely heartwarming and touching,” shared Thrush, who has witnessed this touching exchange numerous times.

Lezlye Ramos, a recent doctorate graduate in occupational therapy from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, invited her father onstage to bestow her with the academic hood. Despite initial apprehensions about his appearance, her father, a construction worker, stole the spotlight. Ramos’ social media post of the event spurred admiration from fellow Latinx students who found the interaction inspiring.

“The diversity within higher education and the representation it provides is impactful. Graduation day was a shared achievement,” expressed Ramos.

‘A Shift in Graduation Norms’

Pablo Gonzalez, a Chicano scholar at UC Berkeley who has emceed the Chicanx Latinx graduation, shared that the tradition of crossing the stage with loved ones originated several decades ago at the university. Rather than focusing solely on individual accomplishments, this tradition highlights collective achievements.

“Beyond personal achievements, this event celebrates the communal support that’s essential for success,” Gonzalez emphasized.

He noted the significant role this tradition played in shaping his and his family’s views on education, drawing hope and inspiration from his uncle and brother’s stage walks during their graduations.

Gonzalez described this tradition as an “inversion of graduation,” emphasizing the centrality of the support system that contributes to each graduate’s success.

“This inversion symbolizes the vital sense of community, especially in times like these,” he added.

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For Kayanna Harris, a UC Berkeley Class of 2024 graduate, the unconventional celebration of her achievements was a profound experience.

Having relocated from Jamaica to the U.S. after high school, Harris navigated challenges beyond typical first-generation students. Despite limitations in financial aid options and internships due to her undocumented status, she persisted in her pursuit of a chemical engineering degree at UC Berkeley.

Kayanna Harris with her mom and sister, who joined the chemical engineering graduate on stage on May 13 at UC Berkeley's MLK, Jr. Student Union.

The intimate nature of smaller graduation ceremonies, especially those tailored for undocumented and Black students, resonated deeply with Harris. At the UndocuGrad ceremony, she walked alongside her mother and sister, surrounded by supportive relatives and friends. Although her father couldn’t attend due to mobility constraints, the event was filled with cheers and encouragement.

“It was a moment of immense gratitude, knowing that my family in Jamaica supported me from afar. Their encouragement is the driving force behind my journey,” Harris shared.

Madriz Zarate also treasures her stage-crossing experience. As part of her advocacy journey and reconnection with her cultural roots through dance, she and her parents performed a zapateado, a dance symbolizing liberation and healing, during their stage walk.

“Our dance created a safe and celebratory space for us and others to share this liberating cultural experience,” Madriz Zarate expressed. Surrounded by families with shared experiences, she felt validated and empowered.

“It was a magical moment we created together.”

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