A picture of a graduation cap decorated with
Gustavo Sacramento/MiC.


That is the word I’d use to describe graduation. Prior to the Ross School of Business commencement, I miraculously smiled for pictures in various spots at the Winter Garden reception, commemorating my achievements in a place that always instilled a sense of uneasiness. In the weeks leading up to the ceremonies, I’d told others that I felt indifferent whenever they asked me how graduating felt. I’d subsequently clarify that I feel indifferent, but specific emotions arise whenever I reflect back on certain aspects and memories. For example, I am filled with glee as soon as I think about all the times I spent chatting with the Michigan in Color editors in the newsroom, but alienation is tethered to the Business School’s undergraduate culture.

Quite frankly, I didn’t really know how I was supposed to feel about this seminal moment. Was I supposed to take some “candid” pictures, adorn them with a glossy caption and filter on the ‘gram to highlight my rugged individualism? As a first-generation college student, higher education appeared amorphous and elusive for much of my life. But as a fresh graduate, I am suddenly part of this “educated workforce” cohort that economists and pundits often reference. 

Graduation makes one stage of upward mobility feel very real and permanent. It’s as though I am a video game avatar that just leveled up, but I don’t feel any different. My body and mind still ache from the poor dietary habits I adopted. I still come from a dilapidated house and my family network consists of industrious working-class laborers and service workers. Simply put, social class is about much more than just money. 

For me, graduation marks a painful separation from the past. All of the sacrifices and desolation culminate toward a life-changing piece of paper that serves as a conduit toward financial stability and overall wellness. The power shift is flummoxing. Some have noted that, not too far down the road, future students might reach out to me — ME? — for advice. I am a noob at dating, dancing, dining out and many other things. Although I am out of the loop on many things, I hope I can at least dispense some kernels of wisdom as an alum.

To gain some clarity, I’ve had insightful conversations with a mix of younger and older first-gens. One recurring theme I’ve heard throughout these past few weeks is that the first-gen experience never ends. Some first-gen college graduates become first-gen professionals (FGPs), while others pursue advanced degrees. The feeling of remaining stuck in a gray area between different worlds and survivor guilt can persist. I might continue to dread updates from back home. These updates were generally grim throughout my undergraduate years, consisting of new health issues that stemmed from strenuous jobs. While some of my Ross peers yammer about lucrative industries and exit opportunities, I think back to conversations with my hometown peers employed in low-wage jobs, enrolled in community college or enlisted in military service. I will continue to be in the front-row seat and witness the growing wealth chasm unfold.

There is one forgiving and unforgiving aspect that comes with aging. Vast swathes of our past, however blissful or miserable they were, become sucked up and compressed into a few sentences and even words. This truncation takes place on the lines of our resumes, captions on social media posts and in conversations we have with others. All of the memories, experiences and interactions become zipped up in the “I went to the University of Michigan” portion of our introductions.

This reduction can be frustrating — how can anyone squeeze their most formative moments into a series of phrases? However, it can also be liberating. Many of us have failed in different instances and others are more open about sharing these shortcomings, but we are empowered to choose which to briefly highlight from our resume of failures. Regardless, the truncation is inevitable, and I think that is beautiful. No composition of words can truly capture any one experience.  

Roughly a month ago, I asked an editor to provide feedback on my writing. There was one piece of advice, rooted in observations on how writers evolve, that stuck with me due to its profoundness. First, one can initially write to demonstrate that they have the prowess to impress others with their content and style. But then there eventually comes a pivotal inflection point. Akin to a flow switch in a rap song — like in Kendrick Lamar’s masterful “DNA” track — one begins to write for themselves. “You write for yourself first,” the editor emphasized.

This advice can be extrapolated toward the rest of life. Do things for yourself. Not for do-it-for-the-Vine clout, LinkedIn updates and shallow affirmation from others. Do it for yourself. For example, I am proud of my previous pieces, but I felt it was incumbent upon me to leave a good impression and to channel the voices of other first-gens. At certain points I felt encumbered to utilize many literary scalpels to refine my word choice delivery. I was still inflicting the same form of self-editing that comes from agonizing assimilation. In the future, I hope to write with confidence in my abilities and without the pressure of fulfilling others’ expectations, both real and unreal.

Graduation, like many major life milestones, can serve as another clean slate and transition — a new game file or writing draft that one can start from scratch and save or discard as they see fit. For much of my life, I seldom thought I had much worth sharing, as it often felt like self-aggrandizement. I never envisioned writing about free-and-reduced lunch and the amount of warmth I have received from others as of late. I typically would become verklempt over sharing even a sliver of my working-class upbringing. At this juncture, I hope to improve my writing style in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Ultimately, I want to start living life for myself.

MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at gsacrame@umich.edu.