By C. Diane Wallace Booker, Esq., Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President for U.S. Dream Academy

When my son was selected to be a part of Michelle Obama’s “A Year of Firsts”- an internet series to document the first year of college, who could have guessed that our entire world would be going through “a year of firsts”!

The concept behind her series was to document the first year of college for four freshmen in different parts of the country so that current high school seniors could get a glimpse of freshman year and perhaps lessen their anxiety about college by knowing what to expect.

To all of our surprise, these four freshman in Mrs. Obama’s series, along with most high school students and college students from all walks of life, had their lives turned upside down in early March when their high school and college experience as they knew it came to a crashing halt!

For many students, in particular seniors, this abrupt pivot has been a source of deep sadness, loss, regret and uncertainty.

For one of our U.S. Dream Academy mentors, Sheldon who is a senior at University of Houston, double majoring in Finance and Accounting, this will represent a “year of firsts” for his family. Sheldon will be the first in his family to graduate college!

Graduating from college is already a big accomplishment and becomes an even sweeter moment when your entire family witnesses a moment that changes the trajectory for future generations.

During a virtual mentoring session, hosted by our Houston Dream Academy staff, Sheldon was sharing with a group of Dream Academy students his reaction to hearing that his college graduation would be cancelled. Hear in Sheldon’s own words as he shares with our young people his own sense of disappointment around graduation.

Disappointment is a very real part of life, pandemic or not, and we must help our youth, teens, and young adults understand how disappointment can be used to build a stronger resolve in how we face challenges in life. Experiences of disappointment challenge us to grow in new ways.

Sheldon’s disappointment, in this case, was for his family who undoubtedly worked hard to ensure that Sheldon would make it to and through college. Parents dream about the day when their son or daughter will walk across the stage at graduation. This dream is particularly sweet for families who have sacrificed, possibly gone into debt, or worked an extra job to create a “first” – the first person to graduate in their family. They deserve this moment as they have fought for it for generations.

For Sheldon and all the seniors who may miss or at the least have their graduations postponed, it is important for you to know how proud your family and friends are of your accomplishment. No virus can take away your commitment, hard work and tenacity.

As positive youth development advocates and educators, this is not the time to relax our resolve to see our young people to and through high school and college. Our multifaceted strategies and collective community efforts still matter. First generation college students and first generation high school graduates across the country need our active and committed support, even more at a time such as this.

What can we do now for our young people? We can focus on building positive developmental relationships with the young people in our lives. These relationships will ultimately help our young people build perseverance, resilience, determination, encourage creativity and adaptability. Click here to read “Building Developmental Relationships During COVID-19 Crisis” developed by the Search Institute.

To Class of 2020 Seniors across America: We are proud of you and cheering for you in the home stretch of your virtual high school or college experience. We are proud of you and your accomplishments. Know that you are living through a unique and unprecedented time. Your resilience at this time is more important now than ever to prepare yourself to emerge from this pandemic – perhaps stronger, wiser and ready to take on the challenges to achieve your dreams!! They are still possible and we believe in you!

Once we are able to gather safely in groups again, let’s be intentional in our local communities about celebrating the graduates in our lives – with family or at a church, community or social club.

Recognizing and celebrating the graduating students in our lives is an opportunity to deepen our relationships and to create community pride. If colleges and universities don’t issue postponement dates and graduation cancellations become permanent decisions, then we should consider how to offer graduation ceremony alternatives in our local communities this year. For example, maybe churches could host “graduation” ceremonies and fraternity and sororities could organize celebrations for local students. I have a friend here in Maryland who is already planning a party for the young people in our church to celebrate them, and it will include a ceremonial walk across the stage.

These celebrations, while perhaps smaller, can still be mighty. They can still affirm students and give parents that special moment of pride they so deserve, while also creating memories and photos for a lifetime.

If we all as neighbors, friends and parents come together to cheer on and celebrate our seniors (both in high school and college), we will keep our young people encouraged and inspired as they move into the next phase of their lives.

Please leave a comment below of a suggestion of how graduates can be celebrated in your community.

C. Diane Wallace Booker, Esq., is the Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President for the U.S. Dream Academy, a justice reform champion, attorney and seasoned non-profit executive. She led the national expansion and has refined a youth development model of skill building, character building and dream building that has successfully helped thousands of young people living in high risk neighborhoods to build positive dreams. VIEW FULL BIO

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