OGDEN — That he'll soon officially be a Weber State University graduate, says Jose Chacon, is "groundbreaking."
As the son of a Salvadoran immigrant, he's the first in his family to finish college. Now, says Chacon, graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, he hopes his success empowers other Latinos to similarly pursue higher education.
"The main thing I say we all share — it's possible," he said Saturday after a ceremony to honor Latinos like himself who are in WSU's class of 2019. "We can overcome barriers if we keep trying."
WSU's Diversity and Inclusive Programs, among other groups, helped organize the inaugural Latinx/Raza Graduation ceremony, meant to be a nod to the rocky road Latinos can face in pursuing a college degree. Most, if not all, who took part are the first in their families to get post-secondary degrees, like Chacon, said Enrique Roma, WSU's executive director for access and diversity.
Indeed, Romo lamented, some Latinos are discouraged from considering college on graduating high school. "But it doesn't matter. If you put in the time, success will come," he said.
The number of Latinos graduating from WSU totaled 177 in 2016 and grew to 289 for 2019, a 63% jump. "You're all an inspiration. You're truly paving a wonderful path for future generations of Latinx students," said WSU President Brad Mortensen, referencing the increase.
But Romo would like to see the numbers grow even more. More than half of the students in the Ogden School District are Latinos, he noted, yet only 13% to 14% of students at WSU, fed, in part, by the school system, are from the ethnic group. That's a disparity he'd like to narrow, and events like Saturday's ceremony — which comes ahead of WSU's formal commencement ceremony on April 26 — aim to put the focus on the issue while celebrating those who get their degrees.
Marcela Esquivel of Roy, who will be getting an associate's degree in science, will be the first to get a college degree in her family. Her father, originally from Mexico, didn't finish high school, while her mother got a high school equivalency diploma. "It's a pretty big deal for me," she said.
Like Chacon, she encouraged other Latinos considering college to hold tight to their vision. "Keep going, no matter what anybody else says... It doesn't matter what people are saying in the media and politicians. We're powerful," she said.
'SÍ, SE PUEDE'
Students and WSU administrators speaking Saturday switched between Spanish and English. Flags of numerous Latin American countries adorned the walls, traditional dancers representing various Latin American cultures performed and some of the students decorated their mortarboards with messages.
One mortarboard read, "First generation grad." Another referenced the ongoing immigration debate: "Proud Latina/Dreams without borders/2019."
Parents and other family members in the audience cheered and shouted. Likewise, many of the 30 or so students honored — each had a chance to address the crowd — gave thanks to family while some offered shout outs to Mexico.
One young woman tearfully thanked her family, then expressed an optimistic message, in Spanish, that anything is possible: "Y sí, se puede. Viva Mexico!"
Romo, when addressing the crowd, noted the small number of Latinos who get bachelor's degrees, just eight out of every 100 in a given class. "So this is important because we need to know that we have to do better so we have better representation at all levels," he said.
He also noted the prejudice Latinos can face, encouraging the students to work past it. "Remember never to give up. I know life can be hard. Sometimes people humiliate us and tell us we're not worth anything simply because we're Latinos. Do not let them break you down," he said.
Patrick Robello, one of the student speakers and bachelor's degree recipient, said this year's crop of graduates "will become tomorrow's nurses, business professionals, entrepreneurs, lawyers, computer scientists, social workers, anthropologists and hopefully even politicians."
The impact, though, goes beyond that, he said, and extends to younger Latinos yet to enroll in college. The degree each student receives on April 26 will be a notable achievement, he said, but it's also "an incredible promise to the next generation of Latino students because each of us are the educators of tomorrow."