‘I thought I would never make it’: groundbreaking grads on their success

The end of the academic year brings joy and reflection for students who pushed boundaries

Nia Augustine, 21

First in her family to graduate college, University of Virginia

Nia Augustine’s family never thought she would go to college. In fact, before she applied, her family didn’t really understand the point. “My mom’s first question was ‘why?’” This put Augustine’s decision into perspective. “For some people it is assumed they will go to college from birth. This wasn’t how it was for me.” In May, Augustine graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology.

When Augustine’s graduation day finally came, she and her family were relieved and proud. They also found it a little poignant. “I was exhilarated to know that I’ve completed a milestone that many others haven’t,” she said. Augustine plans to combine her interest in healthcare with her desire to help minority communities by becoming a regional manager at a hospital.

Augustine’s advice for the next generation of college students is to ask for help. “ As first-generation students, we are used to doing everything by ourselves and we should take pride in our resilience. But seeking help when we need it is essential for our success.”

Sarah Ondak, 22

First trans person on the Stanford rowing team

Sarah Ondak.
Sarah Ondak. Photograph: Stanford Athetlics/Sarah Ondak

When Sarah Ondak joined the Stanford rowing team in their freshman year of college, they felt totally alone. But now, as they graduate as the university’s first trans rower, they feel included, empowered, and overwhelmed with happiness.

“I thought I would never make it, you know?” they laugh, when asked how they felt posing for their graduation photo. “I had seen the pictures of pretty white dresses, the red sashes, and all the celebratory poses, and I just never thought that would be me. But four years come by in a flash, and now I am someone my younger self would have been really proud to be. I’m so happy.”

When they first started at Stanford, they say, a lot of LGBTQ+ issues weren’t spoken about – now they leave behind a different kind of legacy. “Just by existing as I was, I was making a space. I’m really hopeful that it won’t be as hard for other people in the future.”

Their advice to others like them, who may want to attend college but don’t know how they will fit in, is simple:Don’t be afraid to use your voice. Because most of the time people are willing to listen, they’re just too afraid to ask for themselves.”

Christopher Hernandez, 22

First PhD student in his family, University of California, Los Angeles

Christopher Hernandez .
Christopher Hernandez . Photograph: Julian Angat/Christopher Hernandez

Christopher Hernandez is the first person in his family become a PhD candidate and an astrophysicist.

“Getting to college was actually one of my biggest dreams growing up. To finally be able to accomplish that, I feel like I’m beginning a brand new journey for myself,” he said. A first-generation college student, Hernandez is humbled to be a role model for younger relatives. “I think about my younger cousins and my other family members and I’m glad to be someone they can look up to. Now they have the opportunity to say, ‘Well, if he could do it, then I can do it too.’”

Entering a top research institution was a big culture shock to him. As a Latino man, he found it difficult to feel welcomed in the white-dominated field of astrophysics. He now plans on sharing his love of science with younger students. “My goal is to become a professor and make science more accessible to others because physics and astronomy can sometimes be a very elitist field,” he said.

For younger students thinking about entering college and pursuing higher education, Hernandez stressed the importance of building a community. He concluded: “If it wasn’t for the help of my family, friends, and peers, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Isabelle Woloson, 22

First woman with Down syndrome to graduate from a Colorado college

Isabelle Woloson.
Isabelle Woloson. Photograph: Isabelle Woloson.

When Isabelle Woloson’s story went viral in May – dancing in her cap and gown as she became the first woman with Down syndrome to graduate from a Colorado college or university – her excitement was palpable. Imagine then how she felt a few weeks later, when she received personal congratulations in the mail for her achievement from the Colorado senate.

“Isabelle is a trailblazer and role model for other students … The Colorado Senate wish her the best as she moves into the next chapter of her life,” the certificate read.

Talking about it now, Woloson is ecstatic. “It feels empowering, and I don’t want to just be the first person with a disability to have graduated, but to have other people with other disabilities to be able to graduate too. To be an inspiration for others,” she says.

Her plan for the future is to help others as a life coach. The advice she would give to them? “Just persevere. And always have that motivation towards what you want to do after graduating,” she says. “I really feel confident because now I have a lot of opportunities. I feel like I can just do whatever I want.”

Ahmed Muhammad, 18

First Black male valedictorian at Oakland Tech

Ahmed Muhammad.
Ahmed Muhammad. Photograph: Courtesy Ahmed Muhammad

Recently, Ahmed Muhammad became the first Black male valedictorian of Oakland Technical High School. While he was happy to graduate this year, he was just as eager to begin his college journey. “It was nice to see our achievements come together in a nice in-person graduation, and college feels like it will be a much-needed reset,” he says. His family was understandably proud of his achievements and Muhammad credits their love and support with helping him graduate at the top of his class.

Although this achievement is memorable, for Muhammad it illuminated a prevalent problem in the high school education system. “Being the first Black male valedictorian at my school is not an achievement at all. It shows that our school system has failed a lot of bright, capable people.”

To combat this issue, Muhammad created Kits Cubed, a non-profit organization that creates and sends science kits to young students all over the country. “It helps with the lack of resources and opportunities granted to young students, especially in my community. This is my way of paying my love of science forward to the next generation.”

Muhammad will be studying engineering at Stanford University. His piece of advice for the next generation? “Do everything that you love. When you do what you love, you feel fulfilled and prepared for a new chapter in life.”

  • This piece was amended on 20 June 2021. An earlier version misstated Sarah Ondak’s gender.


Poppy Noor and Sarah Logan

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