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At Tufts University, a celebration of first-generation graduates

Jesse Najarro-Cermeño, 22, hugged his mother, Heidy Cermeño, after a ceremony at Tufts University.
Jesse Najarro-Cermeño, 22, hugged his mother, Heidy Cermeño, after a ceremony at Tufts University.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

MEDFORD — Of all the commencement ceremonies that will take place around Boston this month, it’s possible that none will be as joyful or exuberant as the one held in a small hall at Tufts University on Friday evening.

Tufts has made a serious effort in recent years to welcome first-generation college students to its campus, and on Friday the university celebrated the 58 who are graduating this year as the first in their family to earn a college degree.

The ceremony was full of singing, cheering, stomping, and whoops of joy that reverberated off the ceiling of the intercultural center where it took place. It felt less like a ceremony and more like a big family party.

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For anyone receiving a college degree, a diploma means a lot. But for many of these students, the success was sweeter because their journey has been more difficult.

Several first-generation students talked Friday evening about how hard it was to adjust to a campus of white, upper-class students, many of whom knew each other from prep school or would leave campus every summer for an expensive summer vacation.

“You have culture shock,” said Mario Delgado, a 25-year-old physics major from Charlotte, N.C., who came to the United States from Ecuador when he was 8. “There’s kind of a difference between you and everybody else.”

The ceremony on Friday celebrated that difference.

“I’ve made it through because of the fact that I’m not alone,” said graduating senior Muna Mohamed, 21, of Lewiston, Maine.

The community of first-generation students at Tufts is growing. The incoming class this year had 210 first-generation students, up from 163 last year. Among the graduating seniors Friday were seven undocumented students, the first such students to graduate Tufts.

Tufts president Anthony Monaco, himself a first-generation student, spoke briefly during the ceremony, but students cheered the loudest for Robert Mack, an associate provost and chief diversity officer at the school who has quietly worked to assemble what is now a vast array of programs and services for first-generation students.

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Mack, whose parents also did not attend college, used the ceremony to give the students one more assignment: Find someone who had given them a piece of advice, or a hug, or listened when they needed to talk.

“Before you leave Tufts University in a few weeks, you find them, you thank them, you give them a hug,” he said.

One of Mack’s projects has been the creation of a center that opened this year for first-generation Tufts students. It has quickly become a place to find camaraderie and learn about available services, such as where to find free books or a winter coat or how to secure funding to afford an unpaid summer internship or trip to an academic conference.

Joel Pimentel Alves (right), 22, shook hands with Jared Smith, a student success adviser, at a Tufts ceremony on Friday.
Joel Pimentel Alves (right), 22, shook hands with Jared Smith, a student success adviser, at a Tufts ceremony on Friday.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

For several years, Tufts has run a six-week summer program for incoming freshmen who are first-generation students to acclimate them to university life and academics. The school also started a second, shorter summer orientation, to be able to accommodate more first-generation students because interest was so high.

The university also has a mentoring program that pairs the students with staff or faculty at Tufts who were also first-generation students.

On Friday, students talked about how much better they felt after meeting other first-generation students who could relate.

“It’s just such a relief to know that you’re not alone,” Delgado said.

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Among the graduates at Friday’s ceremony was Bethany Kirby, 21, from Beattyville, Ky. She comes from a part of Appalachia that couldn’t be more different from the Tufts campus in Medford. Her mother is a receptionist, and her father is a parole officer who also works a second job.

“I’m kind of in between two worlds sometimes,” she said. “I’ve experienced more things than my family ever will.”

When she first arrived at Tufts, she said, it was tough. She felt like she was only there to fill a quota, and the academics were much more difficult than she expected.

“I felt so much imposter syndrome,” she said.

Kirby received a full scholarship to Tufts and will graduate with a double major in human development and psychology. She plans to go home for the summer but ultimately wants to move to a bigger city.

For many first-generation students, she said, graduation is a stressful time of coordinating logistics for their parents to be able to attend. Her family did not attend Friday’s ceremony, but her father will be able to drive to Boston for the main ceremony in a few weeks.

Manuela Smith, of Worcester, was there Friday to celebrate with her daughter, Coralys de Jesus. Smith said when she was Coralys’s age, she already had two children and two jobs.

It was scary at first to send her daughter off to Tufts, she said. But there was a special program the summer before school started for parents that made her feel better. She met the staff and talked with other parents who felt the same.

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“Now she has a future,” Smith said. “Before, I didn’t know what we were going to do.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.