Navigating Graduation Day With Complicated Family Dynamics

Hi hi hi!


If you are reading this post and you are an upcoming graduate, congratulations! You did it! As someone who works in higher education and am committed to student success, I am so proud of this accomplishment for you. However long it took you to get to the pomp and circumstance, you are at this point because of your hard work and diligence. The late nights in the library or in your room paid off and you deserve to celebrate that!


In the midst of celebration, there's also the reality that graduation day is a mix of emotions. When I graduated from undergrad a few years ago, even though I was excited and happy, I was also nervous, anxious, and stressed. As a first generation college student, much of my identity was built on surmounting this incredible accomplishment. But, as a first generation student, graduation day came with an assortment of unknowns that I carried with me into my first job and the months following the post-grad high, but first I had to make it through graduation day.


Like many of you reading this, I come from a complicated family. Complicated is the diplomatic way that I've chosen to leave old wounds unaddressed for my own preservation. Difficult also works. Dysfunctional too. Harsher words, words my therapists would use, include manipulative, abusive, destructive, and violent.


Without going into details, I can share that graduation season, a time that is supposed to be magnetic, and vibrant, feels stressful, nerve-wracking, and unceremonious. I don't want to parade my family around to faculty and administrators who don't understand that they are a source of pain for me. I also don't want to have to explain to my family the organizations that I am part of, my homes on campus, that they don't support or understand.


As a first-generation college student, I struggle with balancing the realities of my family's sacrifice and my own accomplishments. I find this to be common across first-gen grads; its nearly impossible for us to center ourselves because our degrees represent everyone in our families who didn't have access to higher education. I want us to remember that we earned this moment, this degree, and even though we can be grateful for what our family has done, our accomplishments are ours. I say this because on graduation day, this dynamic bleeds into my sense of celebration. My last graduation, my family honestly made it more about their sacrifices and less about me. Of all the days, I am allowed to want to celebrate myself. Graduates of color and first-generation grads are not afforded this enough.

Graduation is the collision of my two worlds and it feels both invasive and overwhelming. With all of these things in mind, I've put some thought to the kinds of strategies I wish I had employed to make it through graduation day the first time around and will do my best to implement the second time.


In an ideal world, I am a planner in my personal life. I am structured, regimented, and down to the last detail. This version of myself isn't drowned in anxiety and depression. This version of myself hasn't been dreading graduation all year nor have I been worried about accommodating my family's needs. In this iteration, I sent my family the university commencement website months ago to answer preliminary FAQs, built them an itinerary, and confirmed all the details of their arrival.


Sadly, this isn't the version of me we're working with. I did none of the helpful things I just listed above in a timely manner, but they were done eventually. Graduation season inadvertently comes with a lot of (un)addressed traumas that can be exacerbated, and in my case, that led to avoiding the topic as much as I could.


The number one thing I learned from my first graduation that I won't make the mistake for in my second graduation is not having a graduation guardian angel (GGA). This is someone who is NOT graduating the same day as you that can serve as a buffer between you and the difficult people in your life celebrating you. This year, I'm lucky that my cousin will be attending my graduation. As a family member not immediately related to my parents, they aren't as big of a trigger for her as they are for me. She also knows how to navigate NYC and the subway system so I won't have to worry about directing my family or losing them in the crowds of people in midtown.


Prior to graduation, I spoke to my GGA about travel concerns, my relationship with my family, and day of logistics. It helps that she's familiar enough with the triggering people in my life and that they are familiar enough with her. She's taking on the responsibility of herding the squad on public transportation, being the executive decision maker, and being the main communication line between me and my triggers. In essence, she is my buffer and I'm so happy to have her.


Having someone intervene between you and your difficult family members requires a level of bravery and vulnerability to admit to yourself that your relationship with your family is actually unhealthy. I don't talk about it enough to people around me because honestly I feel ashamed. At worst, I appear ungrateful and selfish. At best, I am preserving my peace. In order to truly celebrate myself, I must be committed to the latter and not worry about the former.


I hope this strategy helps you. I hope there is at least one person in your life committed to prioritizing you on such a huge day for you. Your relationship with your family may be complicated, but it doesn't take away what you've earned. People are proud of you; remember that. You deserve to be centered. You deserve to be celebrated.


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