Editor's note: Jesse Carmona, a Latina/Latino studies major, gave the following speech at our convocation ceremony on May 11, 2024. It has been reprinted below with her permission. 


Good afternoon everyone, and thank you all for coming to see our wonderful, hardworking graduates walk the stage. I think it’s safe to say on behalf of all of us, that it feels like this day could not have come sooner. All those nights spent staying up studying, writing, and reading have brought us to the day we have been anticipating since our first day on campus. This heavy weight has been lifted off our shoulders, and we can let out a big sigh and tell ourselves, “Finally. I did it.” Once again, congratulations to the graduating class of 2024!

I would like to take a moment to talk about the Department of Latina/Latino Studies, and the immense impact it has had on not just myself, not just our seniors, but many other students who have taken even just one class in LLS. In these classes, we learned so much regarding the history of Latinas and Latinos, things I never knew about before coming to college. I didn’t know that many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Black women were forcefully sterilized; their bodies used to experiment on birth control methods. I also didn’t know about the history of our fight to gain equal access to an education; there was even a protest here, at our very own institution, in 1992. A large group of students, not just Latina/Latino students, went to the Henry Administration building with a list of demands, such as to have more Latina/Latino faculty, and establishing better resources and programs geared towards Latino students. Who knew that because of generations before mine, people who have dedicated their life to demanding equal opportunity to things like an education, are the reason why students today are able to learn about our history? Isn’t that amazing?

I want to share a little bit about my academic journey. Now, I am not a traditional student – perhaps I am not the only one among other graduates here today. For a long time, I felt like I’ve been one step behind everybody else. I couldn’t afford to go to any of the universities I had been accepted into, so I decided to stay home and start my first two years at my local community college. Little by little, the feeling of being behind everybody went away. I no longer felt ashamed or embarrassed going to, what my high school peers referred to as, a “not real” college. This way, I saved a lot of money and had more time to figure out a plan for transferring to a university, and continue my education afterwards… as a psychology major.

When I was accepted at U of I, I was so overwhelmed with joy and excitement to begin a new chapter in my life… and then COVID happened. My first year here was the first year everything was remote. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to adjust, but I made it work… for a little while. As some of you might have experienced, spending every day in a small dorm room eating the same dorm cafeteria food, watching your classmates and professors through a computer screen, not being able to do much outside, it begins to take a toll on your mental health. That was the case for many students, like myself.

For the next two years, I struggled with going back to in-person schooling. I didn’t think it would be so difficult because if everybody else did it, why couldn’t I? I was no longer the same student before coming here. But, since all eyes were on me in my family, I had to keep echandole ganas so I could graduate, get a job, and make them proud. Then, I started to notice something about my psychology classes: there was very minimal representation in both the curriculum and the faculty. After five years as a psychology major, Professora Ruedas-Gracia was the first professor that I saw myself in; a first-generation Mexican American woman, just like me. Her class was the first psychology class I had ever taken where we talked about how discriminatory psychology can be towards minority groups.

When I first met our former Latina/Latino Studies advisor, Alicia Rodriguez, we were planning my schedule for Fall 2023 so I could fulfill my requirements for my LLS minor. What was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting, turned into a very long therapy session. She introduced me to Xavy Ramirez, a fellow U of I graduate student in Social Work who majored in Latina/Latino Studies as an undergrad. Xavy, here is the moment you’ve been waiting for, where I publicly give you credit for helping me change my major from Psychology to Latina/Latino studies. Talking with Xavy and Alicia that day changed my life in the best ways possible, but I won’t lie when I say I was scared about not graduating by the following Spring. I also couldn’t help but to think to myself: “Well, what am I going to do with a degree in the humanities and social sciences?” To the parents and guardians in the room: trust me, we have all questioned it ourselves, more than we would like to admit and ever will.

But there is actually quite a lot you can do with a degree in Latina/Latino Studies, or in African American Studies, Gender & Women’s Studies, Asian American Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology. Many of our alumni work in education, law, social work, politics, and some are here with us as esteemed professors. Through these departments, students like us have been able to find a space where we can talk about difficult topics we otherwise would not be able to outside of the classroom. Students like us who have long been marginalized and pushed out of higher education narrative; we were able to see ourselves reflected in course material. The humanities and social sciences do more than enrich our minds with knowledge, but also nourish our hearts and souls.

There is still work that needs to be done in diversifying the curriculum at the university, but these departments here today have been able to bring us students together and are at the forefront of this struggle. We have been able to form communities and support systems within these spaces that reassure us and let us know we are never alone. So, my fellow graduates, as we look back on our years here and think about who has been there to guide us along our journey as our support system, I want to take this opportunity to thank mine. To my professors Dr. Velázquez, Dr. Lira, and to the LLS department’s current advisor Sean Ettinger: Thank you so much for working with me, for having so much patience for me, and for being the best support system a student could ask for. Thank you to Xavy, for making sure my head is always on my shoulders, and reminding me I have people here that want to see me succeed. I have so much love for all of you and for being my community. Y finalmente, quiero dar las gracias a mi mamá por siempre apoyándome durante estos años. No estaría aquí si no fuera por los sacrificios que has hecho por mí. Ya pasó lo más difícil.  

We leave here with knowledge of our history; a history that is rarely taught in spaces outside of our courses. We carry the history of our ancestors and many more like us, who didn’t think there was a space in higher education for students like us. But there is, and it exists here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And after we leave this campus, if we begin to fear whether or not there are other spaces for us, never forget that there is. Even if we have to search high and low for it, we know it’s there. And if not, we’ll create that space because we deserve to have one too.


Thank you.