Five for 2020

Imagine a major milestone in your life coinciding with a major milestone in human history. That’s what the class of 2020 is living through, as they finish college virtually and graduate into what might become the next Great Depression. We checked in with just a few newly minted UW–Madison grads, all of them members of a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement (DDEEA) program, and we found both thoughtful reflection and refreshing optimism.

The new alumni we talked to were:

Penda Smith ’20
Hometown: Harlem, New York
Major: Neurobiology

Francisco Velazquez ’20
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Major: Journalism and anthropology with a certificate in Chicano and Latino studies

Desiray Calderon ’20
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Major: Psychology and human development

Grace Padgett ’20
Hometown: Burtonsville, Maryland
Major: Biology with a certificate in global health

Shiloah Coley ’20
Hometown: Olympia Fields, Illinois
Major: Journalism with certificates in studio art and African American studies

What does it feel like to graduate at this time?
Penda: I’m from New York. New York was one of the places that was really hit hard. My family’s in New York right now. And just being physically separated from them and being in Madison, I’m really unsure of what’s happening in New York right now. It’s really frightening to me, and it’s tough really trying to manage that with my anxieties. But at the same time, [I’m] figuring out how to hold space to celebrate myself amidst all of this. The past four years have been a really tumultuous journey. I think it’s really hard for me just to figure out, how do I recognize that? Dang, I’m so anxious about what’s happening to my loved ones, but also, how do I celebrate myself?
Francisco: I would say that it’s definitely something that I didn’t expect. Either way, with everything going on, it still feels good to graduate and know that even though we didn’t get the final, last semester after spring break to really finish college the way we wanted to, I think it’s really still nice to know that we were still working toward accomplishing something that was going to happen either way.
Desiray: I think there’s not one feeling to really describe it. I am a first-generation student. Graduation, for example, the ceremony is not just for me, but for my family, so they can see that I did it first. So, that’s sad, but at the same time adjusting to new styles of classwork and different things has definitely been hard.
Grace: I’m obviously upset that commencement is not happening, because I did have family members who were coming to visit and were excited to see me graduate, because not many of my family members have. My immediate family members have not gone to take a four-year undergraduate [degree]. So that would’ve been pretty awesome for them to see. I mean it’s bittersweet in general. I’m very happy to be graduating, for the most part, but I wish it was in better circumstances and not virtual.
Shiloah: It’s funny, because I wasn’t someone who was super psyched about the big commencement to start with, to be honest. I think that for me, I was more interested in the smaller graduation ceremony. So the DDEEA graduations, Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, the Posse Graduation, the School of Journalism one: I was more interested in being in just smaller settings and I guess being able to say goodbye to folks. That meant more to me than this grand celebration of a big commencement.
What’s next for you? And has that plan changed as a result of the pandemic?
Penda: I majored in neuroscience, and I hope to go to medical school one day. But right now, the next step for me is I got into a master’s program at Louisiana State University. It’s totally funded, and I’m going to be doing creative writing. It was really important for me to explore my other passions aside from medicine.
Francisco: I’m going to graduate school in the fall at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. That’s in New York, so I’ll be studying to get an MA in journalism and Spanish journalism. … We’re just waiting out to see if we’ll even be able to be on campus in New York. There may be a possibility, and I may be starting the semester remotely.
Desiray: My next step is going to Marquette University for my master’s in school counseling. As of now, nothing has changed. But who knows? Depending on when all of this ends and everything, I might start grad school online if that’s what it comes to, which would definitely be an adjustment.
Grace: I am looking to go to medical school in the future. For the next one or two years I’m going to be doing research at the National Institutes of Health, then eventually applying to medical school. It’s still very uncertain what the position is going to look like for the upcoming year. It doesn’t start until September, so I’m pretty hopeful that it may be in person.
Shiloah: Yeah, so I’m super happy. I always planned on going straight into graduate school. As of right now, I’m doing my master of fine arts and visual arts at American University in DC starting in the fall. And then this summer I’m working with Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project. They’re based in DC, but I’ll be working remotely. So the only thing that’s changed is, instead of moving out there sooner, I’ll be staying here and working remotely.
Looking back at your time at the UW, who defined your experience? Whom do you think you’ll want to thank five or 10 years from now?
Penda: I’d like to thank the Chemistry Learning Center. When I first got to college, I just knew I wanted to do science, but science is hard. I was in the Chemistry Learning Center for two years, and it was really a defining part of my UW–Madison experience because it taught me how to study.
Francisco: Definitely First Wave. … And definitely, my senior year, I want to say that Dee Hall, the editor of Wisconsin Watch — Dee was just a really good mentor. She’s a really good teacher. She can only teach you so much. But then, she’s very just, “You got to do it, and you just got to go for it.” I would say that she played a really big part in me really wanting to do journalism. And I would definitely say Professor Pat Hastings. I really enjoyed taking a podcasting course with her and really learning about audio and radio.
Desiray: First, definitely the PEOPLE program. I’m a PEOPLE scholar. Without that program I wouldn’t even be here. I wouldn’t be able to say I graduated debt-free or anything. I had a lot of different opportunities because of the PEOPLE program, and that’s how I found out what I wanted to do with my career. After that, a person that has really helped me a lot is Rachelle Eilers [’09, MS’11] from the Chicano and Latino studies department. I met with her one day, and after that she’s helped me with everything from grad school to figuring out the certificate I wanted to do.
Grace: The first organization I would like to thank is my scholarship program. I’m a Posse Scholar through the Posse Foundation. So through that scholarship, I was able to get full tuition to come to UW–Madison. Otherwise I wouldn’t have probably ended up at this institution. So I am very grateful for that. I’m currently in a research lab under Dr. James Ntambi. Through his mentorship over the past few years, I have been able to get positions at the National Institutes of Health and then have a lot of opportunities that I would not have otherwise had.
Shiloah: I think for me, first and foremost, my grandma. I call her Wanna. She did not have the opportunity to go to college even though she wanted to be an educator. And she raised my mom as a single mom, and my mom grew up to be incredible. [My mom] went to [the Fashion Institute of Technology], she went to Columbia University, she did all that good stuff. … Whenever it got really hard, and I just didn’t want to do it anymore, I would always remind myself of everything Wanna had been through and everything she lived through. … And then the other one isn’t a person, so maybe I’m cheating, but the Posse Program on campus just had a really profound impact on my success here. I don’t think at all that I would be where I would be at UW if I hadn’t come in with the nine other folks from Chicago.