Graduation at Edgewood College: Still Dreaming Inspite of the Pandemic

The Capital City Hues

Cercio Guerrero Noguez (l-r), Evelyn Cuēllar Dominguez and Kevin Leauxay have been Edgewood College Community Scholars and graduated this past May.

Part 1 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

In spite of the barriers and obstacles they have faced, the Edgewood College graduating Community Scholars have succeeded and crossed the finish line at Edgewood’s graduation ceremony held May 15th on the Edgewood College campus.

Evelyn Cuēllar Dominguez, Cercio Guerrero Noguez, and Kevin Leauxay have each had their unique journey through higher education and the pandemic. But it is their strong belief as first generation students that a college degree is a passport to a better life for themselves and their families that has led them to succeed in spite a sometimes hostile world and a global pandemic.

 

In spite of the barriers and obstacles they have faced, the Edgewood College graduating Community Scholars have succeeded and crossed the finish line at Edgewood’s graduation ceremony held May 15th on the Edgewood College campus.

Evelyn Cuēllar Dominguez, Cercio Guerrero Noguez, and Kevin Leauxay have each had their unique journey through higher education and the pandemic. But it is their strong belief as first generation students that a college degree is a passport to a better life for themselves and their families that has led them to succeed in spite a sometimes hostile world and a global pandemic.

Dominguez is a Dreamer, which means that she is covered, however tenuously, under DACA that allows her to continue to study and work in the United States even though she is undocumented. Her family moved here when Dominguez was four-years-old and so Dominguez has progressed, like any other student, through Madison public schools. But then she started hitting glass ceilings as a high school student.

“When I applied to UW-Madison ITA, they accepted me,” Dominguez said. “And then they denied me because I wasn’t born here. That was a big shock for me. I knew I had what it took to go to the college of my dreams. But my status is always going to come back and haunt me.”

Dominguez had been involved in the community and had a lot of community support. She also firmly believed that if she maintained her academic excellence that she would be given the opportunity to advance.

“My senior year, I worked really hard and applied to a lot of scholarships,” Dominguez said. “And I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be able to go to college because my parents wouldn’t have the money. I didn’t have the money. And I couldn’t even apply to FASFA or programs to borrow money. That made me really scared because my whole life, I had worked so hard to have a strong resume. And so when I applied to the Community Scholars, it brought so many emotions to the surface. It left me so happy when I was accepted. A program like this gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams and to show me that all of the hard work I was putting in was being noticed.”

Even though she had a 3.50 cumulative GPA, Dominguez still had reservations about collegiate life. As a first generation student, Dominguez had no one in her family who could tell her what college life was like or give her advice.

“The whole process was scary to me, even now, just because being the first means you need to find your own answers and resources,” Dominguez said. “And everything is new. What major should I choose? What is a correct major? What classes was I going to take? What would it look like after I graduate? Or even simply applying to the commencement, everything was very new sitting there yesterday. And being the first one to walk, it hit home to me that I’m the first in my family to walk that stage. And for my younger brother and my cousins to see that someone in the family did it and so can they was such a impactful moment for me to realize that I’m the first and everything was very new.”

While Community Scholars paid for her tuition and she lived with her family, Dominguez still worked part-time working with children through MSCR. And since she didn’t have the resources, no matter what, she felt the pressure to graduate in four years.

“I had three semesters when I took 19-22 credits,” Dominguez said. “And I think since I was always surrounded by what I loved, which is children and seeing them grow, it made the journey easier. I wouldn’t have liked my job if I wouldn’t have not liked the community service that I was doing. I would not have been able to continue to do the busy hours that I had and everything because on top of that, I was also involved in my sorority, Kappa Alpha Chi. We also had to do a lot of community service through the sorority and hosting events to educate students on campus about social issues that were going on. My schedule was very busy. But I made sure that what I was busy in I loved and I was passionate for it.”

For her community service, Dominguez also worked with children, which was right in line with her earning an elementary education degree.

“I love to help students,” Dominguez emphasized. “For example, at the high school, I enjoy helping high schoolers who are in their junior or senior year look for colleges, look for scholarships or simply telling them what my journey was, especially for the undocumented students who are applying to college. It’s very different from those who are U.S. citizens. A lot of my community service was going to schools and helping to organize their library and distributing materials. Then I went to the Catholic Multicultural Center near Park Street and helping in the food pantry. Before the pandemic, every other Saturday, they had classes for Spanish-speaking families. And I would give information about children who have autism and how they could better support their students. While the parents had those classes, I was helping with childcare.”

With such an intense, hectic schedule for four years, there were three things that got her through. One was that all of her activities aligned and complemented each other, they were all part of a whole in her world. Second, since there were nights when she got little sleep, coffee — which she jokingly called her best friend — helped her through the day. And then there was the support of the Edgewood College community.

“The staff were such strong people in the community of Edgewood that when I needed help, they advised me on what classes to take, and how many credits I could take a semester,” Dominguez said. “They always helped me. And even when I was taking classes and some of the classes at the moment just seemed impossible, when I would talk to my professors or ask for advice on how to write a paper — whatever it was — if they didn’t have the answer, they would lead me to someone on campus who had the answer.”

Dominguez worked so hard the past four years that she rarely — if ever — got the chance to sit back and smell the roses. That moment came during the graduation ceremony.

“I realized yesterday that walking the stage is only a minute long,” Dominguez reflected. “The ceremony is one hour long. And I remember I waited so long for just that moment. Although I loved everything that I was doing, many times I was so focused on the end goal, reaching the finish line, I needed to enjoy every minute, every hour of college because nothing gives you the full picture of much and how hard you worked those four years. It’s not easy, even when you love it. It’s still hard. But it is worth it.”

Dominguez has already landed a job for the fall, as a teacher at Midvale Elementary School, a school she attended when she was a little girl. The American Dreams of that little girl have been fulfilled.

***

Kevin Leauxay is a second-generation Thai American. His father emigrated from Thailand when he was 11-years-old and his mother grew up in the United States. Leauxay comes from a large family although his parents divorced.

“I have eight siblings, but we all don’t live together,” Leauxay said. “My real mother and father are separated. They remarried. We all don’t live in the same household. It was four kids plus me and the parents.”

Leauxay’s family moved a lot around Madison and he ended up graduating from East High School in 2017. Leauxay looked at his family’s mobility as a plus because he got to meet so many new and different people. But he wasn’t in the full loop when it came to finding out about scholarship opportunities.

“It’s so funny how I stumbled upon the scholarship,” Leauxay said. “I had finished my financial aid application super-early for Edgewood. I got it in and then when we had an Equal Enrollment Day, an orientation before you are actually attending the school, there was a little presentation about scholarships and other financial help students are offered. This scholarship was presented. I didn’t know anything about it. Nobody told me about it. I had no idea. But I met the qualifications and I pulled someone aside and asked them, ‘I have already submitted my financial aid application. However, I would love to apply for the scholarship.’ I received the application, finished it and I didn’t realize how competitive it was, how many people were applying for this slot. I didn’t know about the interview process or getting a phone call to let people know if they got it or not. That was all very new to me. My biggest goal when graduating was to get college paid for in some type of way, whether that was a full-ride scholarship or some aid. I got it all paid and that has just been a huge, huge weight off my shoulders.”

As a first generation college student, it would primarily be up to Leauxay to make his way.

Leauxay put in a lot of community service when he started his collegiate career.

“I used to volunteer for this shelter, The Beacon, on E. Washington Ave.,” Leauxay said. “It’s a place where homeless people can go and get food. They have a bunch of resources available to them. There is a laundry. They serve food. There is a children’s room/day care. And they also have computers. I used to volunteer and help people apply for jobs online. Many people don’t really know how to use the computer and navigate properly and correctly. I help them with that. I also volunteered at food pantries every couple of mornings.”

The Community Scholars Program had some rule and leadership changes later on, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leauxay began the pandemic sheltered at the home of one of his parents. There were four children and two adults in the house. It made things rather difficult for Leauxay to remain focused.

“Having that many people in the house can be too much sometimes,” Leauxay reflected. “There are a lot of different personalities. There is so much background noise. It is so very hard to do. When it’s that big of a family and you cook or do dishes, the dishes don’t just take 10 minutes. They take an hour to do. It’s spending a lot of time on family and then just being exhausted and not wanting to do school work even though you need to do it. That’s where procrastination comes in. This past year has especially been an exhausting, draining year. I feel isolated and cooped-up.”

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