For Crystal Cruz, a senior marketing major, commencement ceremonies at UNC Charlotte are something of a family tradition - one she’s happy to finally be a part of. In earning her degree on May 12, Cruz becomes the fifth of seven sisters to graduate from UNC Charlotte, an endeavor worthy of praise for any family. But it’s especially remarkable when you consider all of them are first-generation college students born to immigrant parents.
Perhaps what sets this story apart is that Cruz, the youngest daughter of the clan, had never thought of herself a first-generation college student, nor contemplated the significance of her graduation. From her perspective, her college experience had been normal, lacking any true novelty.
However, that all changed when she heard Chancellor Philip L. Dubois speak about the emphasis the University places on first-generation college students, a concept rooted in University founder Bonnie Cone’s lifelong dedication to provide access and opportunity to every deserving student.
“A light bulb went off, and I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I’m a first-generation college student along with all of my sisters, and that was a big deal,” she recalls.
It was suddenly apparent she had taken her experience at UNC Charlotte for granted, while ironically, it stood in sharp contrast to the decidedly nontraditional paths the rest of the Cruz sisters - who range from age 40 to 21 - experienced while at UNC Charlotte.
The elder Cruzes grew up in a rural town with limited schooling in their native country of El Salvador; the couple fled the war-torn country in the 1980's. However, they understood the importance of education and always pushed their kids to go to college. So much so that Cruz says she knew, “not going to college wasn’t an option.” A conviction Cruz now greatly respects considering the obvious burden their parents had to put that many children through college.
“What I’ve come to realize is that while we’re all first-generation college students, each of my sisters took their own path,” said Cruz. “As each sister forged her way, it made it easier and a little more ‘normal’ for the next.
(Crystal's parents, Jose and Carmen Cruz)
“Being the youngest, I’ve benefited the most from what my family has worked so hard for. I’ve never really identified or classified myself as unique. My family has fought to make life ‘normal,’ and I’m a testament to their work.”
In graduating, Cruz is proud to carry on her family’s tradition of hard work while also continuing their tradition at UNC Charlotte. Moreover, for UNC Charlotte, the Cruz family benefits from Miss Bonnie’s unwavering commitment and diligent service to educational access for all students.
In the Cruz household, family means everything. So it’s fitting that as she caps her own family’s impressive pursuit of higher education, she’s welcomed into another: the UNC Charlotte alumni family.