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By Daniela Franco and Isaac Romero
As the academic year comes to an end, thousands of high school seniors across the nation are feeling a lack of acknowledgement, as they won’t experience important milestones like walking across the graduation stage with a high school diploma due to current health restrictions resulting from Covid-19. While many high schools are doing what they can to make their students feel special, national events are being held virtually to celebrate the graduating class.
On May 16, several television networks dedicated two hours to commemorate the Class of 2020. The first hour, “Class of 2020: In This Together,” aired exclusively on CNN and featured guests such as former President Bill Clinton, and actors Gal Gadot and Keegan Michael-Key.
The second hour, “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” was hosted by the LeBron James Family Foundation and simulcast by the major English- and Spanish-language networks. The special offered words of encouragement from leaders in sports, media, and politics and provided the Class of 2020 well-deserved praise amidst the COVID-19 pandemic from figures such as former President Barack Obama, activist Malala Yousafzai, singers The Jonas Brothers, and basketball star LeBron James.
Theodore Roosevelt High School senior Amanda Zetina was one of the students showcased in the CNN special. In her CNN interview, Zetina described her long rough journey from arriving to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico, at the age of six, with no knowledge of English, to becoming the first in her family to attend a four-year university.
“The language barrier was difficult at first when I started my U.S. Education in second grade,” she told Boyle Heights Beat. “I tried to complete English homework regardless if it was right or wrong. I would see other classmates pronounce English words while I was barely learning my ABC’s. I was a bit discouraged, but I pushed myself to learn English.”
After finishing the English Language Development program in the sixth grade, Zetina says she was determined to earn good grades throughout middle school and high school. In her sophomore year of high school, she joined i.am College Track, a non-profit college competition program, that furthered her pursuit for becoming a first-generation college student.
The program provided her with resources like tutoring, ACT prep, and enriching extracurricular opportunities. Zetina will also receive a $4,100 scholarship from College Track that will help reduce her college financial gap.
Roosevelt Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher Carlos Castillo had Zetina as a student her junior year. He was also featured in the CNN special, but said he didn’t feel like the CNN interview captured the whole scope of Zetina’s achievements. Castillo, who was also a first-generation college student, said he pursued a career in education to help students with similar experiences to his own.
“Students like (Zetina) are going to have numerous obstacles,” he said. ‘They don’t have the financial support at home because most parents cannot afford the ridiculous cost of a college education”. He said that finding the money for college is a huge undertaking for many low-income students and financial aid is not always easily accessible.
The summer before her senior year, Zetina joined ScholarMatch, a non-profit that supports first generation students earn a bachelor’s degree, and took advantage of the college counseling and the financial support offered by the program. She also won multiple scholarships, including a $1,500 scholarship each year in college and a $3,000 saving scholarship for college debt.
“Non-profit programs like i.am College Track and Scholar Match made my journey towards a university a lot easier as an undocumented woman,” she said.
This June 11, Zetina will virtually graduate high school with high honors and the i.am College Track Joy Award. While the traditional ceremony will not occur, the Boyle Heights student says graduating from high school is still a big accomplishment for her family.
“All the hard work is still valid,” she said. “Our parents are proud of us, that’s all that matters.”
Her advice to fellow seniors upset about a virtual rather than in-person graduation is to “make light of it and see it in a new perspective, because unlike the other generations of seniors, we are doing something different.”
In the Fall of 2020, Zetina will attend the University of California, Davis, and will major in Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning. As a person of color, she said she wants to have a say in the housing and transportation agencies in her minority community. She also says the help she received makes her want to give back to her community.
Zetina says she was honored to be interviewed on the CNN special and hoped it inspires other immigrant students to continue their education.
“Don’t let society put limits to where you can go,” she said. “Be proud of your background. If you want to achieve a higher education, go for it, look for resources because they are out there.”