Sancia Celestin wasn’t going to lie.
When the George Mason University senior found out that graduation ceremonies in May at EagleBank Arena were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, she was heartbroken.
Not only for her family and friends who had made travel arrangements to attend, but because of what a walk across the stage would mean to her, symbolically, as a first-generation student.
“To be able to know that there is a certain value that I have in myself, that can validate my experiences. It means a lot,” she said.
It was not an easy journey. Raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, by her mother, Marie, and in a challenging economic environment, the psychology major relied on an aggregation of loans, scholarships and grants to pay for tuition. Jobs, on campus and off in each of her four years at the university, helped pay for housing, food and any related costs that came with her classes.
Celestin, though, was not content with just earning a degree. She said she wanted a life experience and to help others in similar situations.
She joined F1rst Gen Mason, an organization devoted to increasing the retention and graduation rates of first-generation college students, and rose to be its president.
She interned at the Center for American Progress, where she researched accountability and transparency in for-profit institutions, and the National College Attainment Network, where she blogged to help promote the organizations policy work, including a white paper on the disparities in support for low-income students.
Celestin also spoke twice at the U.S. House of Representatives about the need to increase Pell Grant and work-study opportunities.
“She’s incredibly smart and resourceful,” said Kimberly Holmes, associate dean for student affairs in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services, who met Celestin through her association with F1rst Gen Mason. “She also made an effort to lift-as-she-climbs, if you will, and bring other students along and share the knowledge she has gotten during her time at Mason.”
Celestin said much of that impetus came from her involvement in the Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP), a summer orientation program for incoming first-generation freshmen through Mason’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education.
“That’s where I immediately found my community, my family, right then, from the start,” Celestin said. “I always had someone to count on. I always had someone to go to to ask questions. For a lot of first-gen students, that’s not the case.”
Celestin said she valued Mason’s diverse student body and that the faculty she studied with were always experts in their fields. With a minor in public policy and management, she hopes for a career in education policy after an upcoming two-year fellowship with Lead for America, which develops community-centered public service programs.
Yes, the lack of a formal graduation ceremony hurts (though there will be a future opportunity to walk across the stage in the fall or at Winter Graduation). But it does not devalue what Celestin has accomplished.
“No, definitely not,” she said. “And for that, I’m grateful.”